We’ve all been involved with situations where something didn’t happen the way it was supposed to happen because of a lack of clearly defined expectations. A customer gets mad because the repair guy didn’t show up when he said he would. The repair guy is stressed out because the appointment scheduler is scheduling him into appointments with no time for driving from one place to another. The scheduler is trying to meet metrics set by the boss.
Think about your own situation. Is there an area where it seems like everything isn’t lining up? Where the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing? Is someone making decisions or taking action without considering how it impacts others in the process?
Today, we are going to talk about a tool that can be helpful in these situations. Its called the RACI (race-eee) matrix. It is a project management tool that you can adapt to your job.
At its core, the RACI matrix is a responsibility matrix. You simply list tasks down the left side and people or departments across the top to form a matrix. Then, at each intersection of a task and person, you list the role the person plays from a responsibility perspective.
The R in RACI stands for responsible. If the person is responsible for performing the task, then you put an 'R' in the cell. Responsible for the task means they physically do it. They are the boots on the ground, the hands on the keyboard, or the person who actually shows up at the client’s home to make the repair.
The A in the RACI stands for accountable. This is the person who ultimately makes sure the task gets done. They are the ‘buck stops here’ person. They are the person who makes sure something happens – even if they don’t actually perform the task. This is the VP of Customer Support in our repair example.
The C in RACI stands for Consulted. If the person has specialized knowledge or is going to be impacted by the task, they may be consulted as part of the task. This is someone whose input adds value even if they aren’t going to be responsible or accountable for making it happen. In our example, our repair guy may make a call to the product engineering department to get an answer about a product specification in order to be able to properly resolve the issue. The product engineering department has no responsibility for customer repairs. But, they do have specific knowledge that can contribute to the process when the situation calls for it.
The I in RACI stands for Informed. This means the person would know about the task but they don’t have input into it. This is one-way communication whereas C – Consulted - is 2 way communication. The accounting department is informed that the repair has been completed so that they can bill the customer for it. They weren’t responsible for making sure the repair got done, accountable for making sure the repair guy showed up, or consulted in the process of making the repair. But, they need to know it happened so they know to send the bill.
So – RACI. Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed.
Benefits of a RACI
Any process benefits from a RACI because it helps to clearly define the roles played by each person involved in the process. It helps clarify who does what so that everyone is on the same page. It helps you think through a process more thoroughly to ensure that you have fewer unintended consequences to decisions or actions taken within a process.
Having a RACI matrix is a way of forcing you to think about the process and all of its stakeholders. It is a way of planning for different scenarios by proactively identifying who does what for each process.
Because each of us tends to get focused on our own day-to-day job, it is easy to just do what we do and lose track of the stakeholders to the process. The RACI gives you a chance to take a step back and think about the impacts you have on others within the process.
We’ve got 2 episodes that would make a great companion to this one – one about the difference between Systems and Processes, and one about Stakeholders.
Cross Functional Processes
There are very few processes in modern business that are isolated. Almost any process you can think of is cross functional – meaning it involves people from across departments. When you involve people from across departments, you are bringing together people with different objectives, different skills, and different focus to solve a specific task.
Because there are so many variables, having clearly defined roles helps take away one variable.
If I know I’m a C – Consulted – in the process, then I know my role is to give input, but I also know I don’t have to actually deliver anything. I also know that the other people involved know my role is limited to consulting, so there shouldn’t be confusion about who is doing what. When something doesn’t get done the way it should, everyone knows that the right person to go to is the person listed as 'responsible' on the matrix. And, if that person doesn’t get it done then the issue is escalated to the person listed as 'accountable.'
This about one of your processes that could use a RACI and spend some time to put one together. I think you'll find that the process helps identify potential areas of problem in the process and will help you resolve them quickly.
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Having clarity of your personal purpose is a foundation to having strong self-awareness. Being clear about who you are and who you aren’t gives you the confidence you need to make hard decisions. But, unfortunately we are not all very clear about our purpose.
I don’t care how old you are, you likely have moments of “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up,” every once in a while. You have to reach a special level of enlightenment to not question yourself everyone once in a while.
I’m not trying to get you to Buddha under the Bodhi tree level of enlightenment, but I do what you to be confident enough in our purpose that you can make decisions – possibly life changing decisions – with confidence.
I also believe that your purpose changes over time. When you are early in your career, you are focused on establishing your career. As you start a family, your focus shifts, and as you near retirement, your focus shifts again. So, it isn’t necessarily a one-and-done situation. If you haven’t thought through your purpose recently, it may be time to take another look at it.
So, as you are thinking about your purpose, think about:
If you make decisions from a place where your purpose is the foundation, you can be certain that you will do it with confidence. And, when you operate with a sense of confidence and from a foundation of purpose, you will be more successful in your career.
Our topic today is a little bit unusual – it is definitely something you don’t learn in school. But, surprisingly, I have found it to be a very useful tool in my career.
You know what an inside joke is. It is something between you and another person that you share and only understood because you have a shared context. You can talk about It in front of other people, and although they can understand all of the words you are saying, because they don’t have the context, they don’t get the deeper meaning. Inside jokes are usually funny, and can sometimes border on mean or cruel if the joke you share is at someone else’s expense.
What I want to talk about today is like an inside joke, but not funny or mean. I’ll call it a verbal shortcut.
A verbal shortcut is something between you and another person that you use to quickly communicate a full idea using shortened words. You’ve established up-front a specific context for the short cut that means that everyone understands the underlying context when the agreed upon short cut is spoken.
You probably already have some that you use without even realizing it. But, by thinking about it as an efficiency tool, you may find that you could purposefully implement more of these shortcuts into your work and find an improvement.
Let me give you some examples that I’ve used over the years.
One of the most recent ones I’ve learned is the verbal shortcut “Left Hand Column.” If you aren’t familiar with this one – hearing those 3 words may not mean much to you. But, when I say those words to one of my coworkers who has been initiated into the use of the phrase, they know exactly what I’m getting at. The phrase “left hand column” means – “here is what I’m really thinking and I’m about to tell you something you may not want to hear.”
By giving this idea a short cut term, we’ve normalized it as part of our culture. Because we have established a protocol that has established the use of this short cut term as an acceptable way to voice our negative thoughts, we are more effective.
Another favorite example that I use all the time is the shortcut “blue car.” This is something I say when I’ve gotten way off topic. It is the same idea as the dog who gets sidetracked by the squirrel in the Movie Up. It is used to tell people – ok, we have gotten completely sidetracked by this unrelated and off-topic discussion and need to come back to the original purpose of the meeting.
These shortcuts don’t work if the others aren’t indoctrinated into the meaning. If I’m in a meeting with a group of people who don’t know what “blue car” means and I say “ok, this is a blue car and we need to move on,” then they all just think I’ve lost my mind.
But, by introducing these verbal short cuts to your department, or the people you work most closely with, you can make an impact on effectiveness.
There are a lot of factors that contribute.
Where Verbal Shortcuts Come From
How do these short cuts come about? A lot of times, they develop over time and out of a situation or context that occurred. For example, I was talking with a colleague when his daughter came into the room and asked him if she could have ice cream. He told her no, but she could have a frozen grape.
I don’t have kids, so frozen grapes may be new to me for that reason, but I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever heard. What kind of a substitute is a frozen grape when what you really want is ice cream? To me, this sounded like bait and switch.
But, my colleague told me his kids love frozen grapes. So, for them, although it may not quite be ice cream, it was an acceptable compromise.
Now, when my colleague and I are talking about how to come up with a solution everyone can live with, we say it is a frozen grape. The client asked for us to assign a project manager to their project full time at no additional cost. That’s not going to be possible, but maybe we can give them the PM at cost as a frozen grape.
I’ve been using blue car for so long that I don’t remember how it came about, but I’ve taken it with me from company to company. It means that I sometimes have to explain it to my new team, but because I use it frequently, they eventually get used to the term.
And sometimes, the short cut gets introduced more formally. For instance, Left Hand Column came about from a training session that all of the managers in my company went through.
So, verbal shortcuts can come in many forms. Over the coming days, keep your eyes out for them. You probably have some in your life already. Look for places where you might be able to introduce a shortcut that would improve efficiency or effectiveness for your work.
It may be something small – a way to communicate to your coworker that you can’t be disturbed, or that although you’d love to catch up, you just done have time. It might be a way to communicate with your manager that you are stressed and just not at your best. Or, it might be with a team you are part of that could use a short cut to deal with a certain recurring theme.
There are a lot of different opinions about brainstorming. As with just about everything, you can find people who think it is the best thing since sliced bread and people who think it is the devil incarnate.
I believe it is an important tool to have in your toolbox, but not that it is the right solution for every scenario. What I want to do today is to give you an idea about a variety of brainstorming that I find to be a great option. It uses a combination of traditional brainstorming tactics with some aspects of agile development methodology and a good dose of individual problem solving.
I’m going to start by describing the process end-to-end and then we’ll go back and examine the steps in more detail with an example.
So, that is an overview of the process. Now, let’s go back through it using an example.
Start with a Problem You Need to Solve
Let’s say your company has been growing fast and things that used to work fine when you were small aren’t working anymore. It is starting to show up in reduced customer satisfaction. Your customer satisfaction ratings have started to decline and you recognize the need to take action, but you aren’t sure what needs to be done. So, the problem you want to solve is improving your customer satisfaction rating.
Start by finding 5-7 people who want to help solve the problem.
They are not signing up to implement the solution identified. They are signing up to participate in the process of identifying a solution to the problem. Their time commitment is something less than 8 hours. Their commitment is to the brainstorming process only.
You want to find people with different points of view. You’ll want to think about customer satisfaction for your company and identify people from different departments that could have an impact on the client. Client satisfaction issues could stem from your product or service, from the delivery process, from the ongoing support process, from the payment process, etc.
A good reference for helping you with this is our episode on System vs. Process. I suggest you go back and listen to it to help you identify the potential people to include in your team.
Educate the Team
Once you’ve identified your team, you are going to define the presentations you want to have the team exposed to. These presentations should help the team understand the problem from different perspectives.
In our example, we would want someone from customer support who could talk about the types of complaints they’ve seen lately. You’d want someone from the product group who could talk about how they take customer feedback into account when they decide on features. Ideally, you’d hear from a customer about what they’ve experienced as you’ve grown as a company. Depending on how bad this customer satisfaction issue has become, maybe you need someone from accounting to present the impact to sales or past-due accounts receivable.
Again, this is not an in-depth analysis of the problem. You want your project team to hear accounts of the problem from multiple angles that they may not have otherwise considered.
Identify Interesting Questions
As the presentations are being made, the team is writing down questions that come to mind. For example, as the person from customer support is presenting, he mentions that he’s noticed more calls are about the increased delivery time. You might write down “how can we reduce delivery time?” I might write down “how can we better set client expectations about delivery time?”
By the end of the presentations, each person might have a dozen questions. If you are doing this exercise in person, the best option is to write them on post it notes. If you are doing it virtually, you’ll need to look at the tools you have available. You could use a shared document and have everyone add their questions to it. Or you could use a virtual whiteboard app like Miro that has electronic post it note functionality.
Vote on the Question The Group will Tackle
Each person in the group gets 3 votes. Give everyone 5-10 minutes to vote on their top 3 questions. Then identify the questions with the most votes.
You may need to do some consolidation. For example, your question and my question about delivery time may have each gotten a couple of votes. Since they are both about delivery time, you may combine them into a single item. Individually, they may not have been top vote getters, but combined, they may.
The point is, a set of questions will rise to the top as the ones the group believes are important for solving the problem. From there, you will have a group discussion to identify which questions the group thinks is the right one to tackle.
One thing that is important to note – it is likely that every question asked is legitimate and could contribute to the solution. Certainly, there will be several questions that are very important and need to be solved. But, for this session, you are just landing on one. The others won’t be lost forever. They just won’t be the focus of this session. You are identifying the question that the group is going to tackle.
Once you have agreement, the groups gets their homework. Go off on your own and draw out your own personal solution to the problem. In our case, each person is going to draw out their ideas about how to improve delivery time.
The guidelines are pretty simple – don’t limit your ideas. Think of this as fantasy land. If you had no constraints on budget or headcount, org structure, or company politics, what would your solution be?
The other guideline is to stay at a high enough level that your solution isn’t tactical – its theoretical. Again, you aren’t solving the problem as a team. You are brainstorming ways to solve the problem.
The timeframe for this exercise should be pretty limited – no more than 48 hours between the 1st session – identifying the question, and the 2nd session where everyone presents their homework.
Identify Potential Solutions
When the group reconvenes, each person presents their drawing and idea. Make sure they mention the assumptions they made and any big questions they still have. This should be time boxed to about 10 minutes per person to keep everyone from getting too far into details because there will be a tendency to try and solve the problem.
After everybody has presented, you will go through another round of voting. Again, each person gets 3 votes. They can vote on a solution in total or part of the solution they find compelling.
Again, you’ll look at the top vote getters and go through a process of consolidating similar ideas.
Once you’ve identified the top vote getters, you will narrow in on which solution the group thinks is the best place to start. Again, all of the solutions may have merit, but given resource constraints at all companies, you’ve got to prioritize down to the one you feel will give you the best return for the effort.
Identify Next Steps
Once you have that, you need to figure out the next step. This team is disbanding. So, you’ll need to figure out how to take the idea forward.
What you’ve done in a very short period of time is gotten a lot of good questions that could help you solve your problem, and narrowed in on a great solutions to take forward.
This brainstorming process is really good because of the diversity of opinions that come out of the “together but apart” nature of it. You are together as a team, but writing down your questions individually. You decide on the question to solve together, but put together a solution on your own. That means your solution isn’t influenced by someone else on the team as would happen in a traditional brainstorming scenario.
I encourage you to give this a try the next time you are faced with a problem to solve that maybe seems too big or overwhelming to tackle.
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