The what-who-when of getting things accomplished

I’ve been working in organizations for close to a decade now, and one of the things that has continually intrigued me is failure, specifically, how certain things just fail to get done. It’s not that I’ve ever been any place where this is pervasive — I’m certain that it happens at every organization,  no matter the size, no matter how effective or efficient the organization is, no matter how great everyone who works there is.

Sometimes things don’t get done because people make a conscious decision not to do them. That’s not what I’m talking about here. (Those decisions are actually really good ones to make – they help us keep focused on what is most important!) I’m talking about the things that require completion but for some reason get lost in the shuffle.

Why does this happen? Most of the time, failed completion of a task comes down to one of four things:

  • Failing to define what task or next step will be completed
  • Failing to define who is responsible
  • Failing to define when it will be done
  • Failing to follow up

Failing to define what task will be completed

This is probably one of the least common failures of the four I list. Most of the time we’re pretty good about saying what needs to be done. The failure that I’ve most frequently noticed, however, is a failure of specificity.  If the next step is poorly defined, there are a few possible problems, most notably:

  • The person responsible may not correctly and fully understand what they’re supposed to accomplish.
  • If we are not specific about what needs to be done, how do we know when it is complete?

For example, if the next step on a documentation project is “Work on text about prospect management documentation,” it’s not clear what exactly would be accomplished. And if a person were being really literal, after “working on it” for five minutes, they could technically say they were done! Instead, a better step might be “Draft definitions for key prospect management terms.”  It’s obvious what needs to be done, and it will be pretty clear when it’s complete!

Failing to define who is responsible

This is also a relatively uncommon failure of the four, but still, it seems to happen. It can come from a statement like “We should really do X.” And everyone around the table nods and says something like “Yeah, that’s a great idea! Let’s do it!”

Great! We have decided that we are going to do that thing!

Of course the problem is, WE do not do things. Individuals do things. If the discussion about a task stops at the “we” level and no individual is assigned to it, it’s entirely possible that everyone at the table will assume that it’s the other guy’s responsibility.

In a well-organized department/division/unit/organization, areas of responsibility are usually clearly defined and universally understood, so the “who” part of the equation is implied. (e.g., Steve is in charge of managing the student workers, so when “we” agree that the student workers should be told to come in early on Friday, everyone understands that Steve is responsible.)

Of course areas of responsibility are NOT always clearly defined and universally understood, which is where things start to deteriorate. And even if roles are crystal clear, a next step can (and often does) fit into multiple areas. For these reasons, it’s always smart to explicitly define the “who” part of a next step.

Failing to define when it will be done

This is where things start to get interesting. (And, in fact, this particular issue is what prompted me to start thinking about this topic in the first place.) Some people, when talking about a task to be completed, very consistently provide a deadline. I’m not certain that those people are in the majority. Plenty of project discussions in which I’ve participated have been devoid of deadlines. We know who is doing what, but it’s not necessarily clear when they’re going to do it! If we’re lucky, the responsible party will pipe up and ask, “when does this need to be done?”

If nobody asks that question you can easily end up with a mixed bag of assumptions about when the task will be complete. One person might think it should be done by the end of the week, while the other might think they’ve got a month to take care of it. When that discrepancy is between a manager and her direct report, the conditions are just right for a potentially frustrating situation: if the manager expects the earlier deadline and it is missed, she is upset because things aren’t progressing according to (what she thought was) the plan; the direct report is upset because the “missed” deadline isn’t necessarily his fault!

So between the manager and her direct, whose responsibility is it to be clear about the deadline? Ultimately, deadlines are the manager’s responsibility. However, the direct always does himself a favor by asking when the deadline is. (If the direct is smart, instead of asking what the deadline should be, he’ll propose something that is optimal for him, and negotiate from there if need be. And if he’s really sharp, he’ll aim to end up with a due date that is far later than he really needs, so he can complete his task way ahead of schedule, and look good as a result!)

Deadlines also help impose a sense of urgency on a project. If no due dates are defined for each of the steps along the way, things can suddenly grind to a halt.

Failing to follow up

The success or failure of a project can hinge on whether or the right people are paying attention to each of the steps.

For one thing, follow-up – checking in to ensure that the right person is doing the right thing at the right time – keeps everyone accountable. If I know my boss is going to ask me about the task I promised to do by tomorrow, I am far more likely to ensure that it gets done. On the other hand, if I’m the only person who will notice that a step isn’t completed on time, I may not be as motivated to take care of it.  (Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying I’m incapable of self-motivation. There’s just more at stake when others might take notice of your failure to complete a task!)

Following up can also help fill in the gaps if the who, what, or when was not defined well enough in the first place. When I check in with my direct and say, “so you’re going to complete X by the end of the day Friday, right?” I reaffirm the who, what, and when of the task, and if any of those things is unclear, we have an opportunity to straighten that out. (And of course this check-in is a hint that I’m paying attention and will probably be bugging him again at the end of the day Friday if he hasn’t completed the task!)


The simplicity of these components is kind of stunning, so much so that I feel a little silly even writing this post. How hard is it to define who is responsible, for what specific step, by when? How hard is it to circle back and ensure that the task was completed when promised? Apparently it’s all just hard enough, because it’s not uncommon to see these small failures, even when working with excellent people at excellent organizations.

Can we get anything done when we fail in any of the areas described above? Sure. People still accomplish a LOT when the who, what, when, or follow-up is missing. But I suspect we can do EVEN MORE if we are more disciplined about our clarity in all these areas.

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