Sunday, August 27, 2017

Writing Your Own User Manual May Help You and Your Co-Workers

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on...................."

Note: Thoughts and good wishes to all those suffering from, and negatively impacted by, Hurricane Harvey.  I hope relief and support are on the way, and that the losses are minimal.  

Conventional wisdom suggests that relationships take time to develop.  To truly get to know someone takes involvement with that person in myriad different circumstances, on varying levels. If it takes 10,000 hours to develop expertise as a professional in a given area, then it likely takes 1,000 hours or more to know a co-worker or colleague well enough and how they function (what their values are, what their approach to the workplace is, how they communicate) so that you can engage with them more effectively, more productively, more knowingly,   This seems true whether for personal or professional relationships - whether in the home or the office.

Why is this important?  Organizational dynamics dictate that for organizations to function at their optimum level, for the people in those organizations to be their most creative and productive, for teams to develop maximum efficiency, flexibility and adaptability, the people need to work well together.  And to work well together, colleagues must learn how to work with each other.  Over time, as they interact and intersect on projects and the day to day business of their organizations, people come to understand the styles, preferences, modus operandi and the individual likes and dislikes of the various team members.  No two people function exactly alike in the work place, or in life itself.  We're all nuanced.  Everybody has their own way of doing things, even as the organization has its own way.  But once people do gain insight and appreciation as to how other people around them generally function, they can more easily get past those hesitations, or missteps or outright mistakes in dealing with each other, so as to come up with better ideas, more easily refine and implement those ideas and get more done.  Unfortunately, that whole process is generally one that has no guidelines and goes on unconsciously.

The problem is the time learning curve.  It takes a long time.  And so different layers of staff have different layers of understanding of the nuances that make up the workplace identity of their fellow colleagues. Let's say you have a medium sized organization with 20 people on staff.  Let's say 10 of those people have been there for eight years or more, six have been there a couple of years, two for a year, and two are recent hires.  The long term staff know each other, know how they work together.  Over time they've come, by simple trial and error and experience, to understand how best to communicate with each other, what ticks each other off and what approaches work best with each other.  They have at least some knowledge and awareness of their strengths and their weaknesses, and ways of doing things, even if they never talk about those things.  That those differences exist is reality.  Over time, these long term co-workers have learned how each of them operates, and it helps them work together.  Those on staff for a lesser period of time are still learning how everybody operates.  They have less awareness of those around them.  The most recent additions are basically clueless and must spend considerable time before they are part of the team on the same levels, often times with little, to no, help in that process.

So if there was a way to speed up this learning process, everyone would benefit as individuals working together, and thus, the whole organization would work better, more efficiently, smoother and more productively.

If only each of us came with a user manual; one that would explain how we work to others.

I came across the idea of people writing their own "user manuals" to give those they work with insights into their preferred work patterns, communications preferences and general approach to the workplace:

"In 2013, Ivar Kroghrud, co-founder, former CEO, and lead strategist at the software company QuestBack, spoke with Adam Bryant at the New York Times about his leadership style. Kroghrud revealed that he had developed a one-page “user manual” so people could understand how to work with him. The manual includes information like “I appreciate straight, direct communication. Say what you are thinking, and say it without wrapping your message,” and “I welcome ideas at any time, but I appreciate that you have real ownership of your idea and that you have thought it through in terms of total business impact.
Kroghrud adopted the user manual after years of observing that despite individual dispositions and needs, employees tried to work with everyone in the same way. This struck him as strange and inefficient. “If you use the exact same approach with two different people, you can get very different outcomes,” he says.  
The user manual aims to help people learn to adapt to one another by offering an explicit description of one’s personal values and how one works best with others. This shortens the learning curve for new employees, and helps everyone avoid misunderstandings." 

The exercise is meant to be simple and straightforward.  One page, divided into sections, with bullet points in each.  Brevity in its execution makes it less onerous an assignment, easier for the intended recipients to digest, and the process is of benefit to the authors as well, as they learn from the attempt to describe their work approach.  Win win.

But the how of organizing your own user manual can be a challenge.  For organizations that want to try this kind of experiment, it would probably be valuable to agree on the outline / template of a format so everyone is on the same page.  As the author of the article succinctly noted:

"The idea of describing all your personality quirks, values, and workplace desires in one page is overwhelming.
To rein myself in, I followed the structure Abby Falik, founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year, used to write her user manual.  
On LinkedIn, Falik describes how she “sat with questions like: Which activities give me energy, and which deplete me? What are my unique abilities, and how do I maximize the time I spend expressing them? What do people misunderstand about me, and why?”
She synthesized these answers into a six-section manual:  Note:  See link for her excellent user manual for ideas.
My style
What I value
What I don’t have patience for
How to best communicate with me
How to help me
What people misunderstand about me

Those are all fine organizational questions, but individual organization staff's are free to come up with their own, customized sections for a user manual.  Here are some variations of the above (with just a couple of ideas in each) along the same theme:

  • How I communicate - preferences (e.g., do you prefer direct contact, phone calls, emails, tweets, Facebook or something else)
  • What's important to me in workplace relationships (e.g., do you like blunt, direct communication or do you prefer gentle tact)
  • What I don't like, what I try to avoid (e.g., do you abhor people who are late, or are you flexible with timelines?  Do you like ad hoc conversations or consider them a waste of your time?)
  • How you can help me work better......
  • How I can help you work better.......
  • Things that don't mean much to me  (e.g., is getting credit really important or is the idea itself what you are after?)
  • What I'm not so good at, but trying to improve (e.g., do you have a short fuse or are you calm and steady; are you detailed oriented or a big picture person?)
  • Bad habits that drive me crazy (e.g., does it make you crazy when people tell you they will call you in the afternoon with an answer and then don't?)

There are no right or wrong answers, nor any absolutes as to what to include or omit in your user manual.  The point of the exercise is to try to honestly give co-workers and colleagues some realistic idea of how you function in the workplace so they don't have to guess, and so they can understand and appreciate why you do things a certain way.  That knowledge, and your knowledge of them, can help you both, and the whole organization, to mesh together and avoid wasting time trying to figure each other out and approaching each other in the wrong ways.   Knowing the other people in your organization / department / team helps you to help them to help you. It's about making everyone's life easier.

The user manuals are meant to be living documents, updated periodically.  They are theoretically valuable to both long term staffers and those who are new to the organization.  They are simply a way to learn about the most important and critical element in the whole organization - the people.  And you want them to be helpful, so you want to avoid too much complexity and detail.  You want to avoid the experience many of us have trying to fathom user manuals for certain electronics - which experience is exasperating, frustrating and often useless.  A good user manual allows the reader to understand the subject matter. 

Certainly, this is just scratching the surface of interpersonal workplace relationships.  It is, of course, simplistic, and thus runs the risk of relying on surface impressions and information.  But it may also be a valid and valuable starting point in building intersections that yield more nuanced and in depth knowledge of each other and thus how to work best with each other.  These kinds of user manuals are meant to be a starting off point, not necessarily the definitive end all statement of how to manage a relationship. 

So perhaps this is an exercise that might be valuable to your organization as you try to maximize your staff working relationships, and optimize the way those relationships impact your creativity, productivity and efficiency - not to mention upping the good will of each other, and an increase in the level of satisfaction and enjoyment of collegial harmony.   As a bonus, the exercise of each person tying to briefly and succinctly describe how they function in the workplace ought to provide some self-insights and awareness, and that can lead to positive changes. 

Have a great week.

Don't Quit