Friday, September 27, 2013

How to Follow Up

In our busy lives, a to-do list keeps us focused on what we need to be doing. Wouldn't it be great if everyone operated that way? What if everyone followed through on his or her responsibilities without reminders? While it would be great, it's not reality. We all know people we must stay behind, remind, and remind again. Moreover, we need a system to make it easy.

Consider the following scenarios:
  1. You are working on a project with other people and have delegated certain tasks to them. How do you make sure everyone comes through with the deliverables?
  2. Someone borrows books or other belongings from you. How do you keep up with what you have loaned? What sort of trigger will cause you to mention something when an item is not returned?
  3. You have placed an order with a company. How do you keep up with what you have ordered? At what point would you call to ask about the status of the order? What is the trigger that would cause you to make that call?
As long as we live in a world where our happiness, success, longevity, or whatever else is in part dependent on someone else, we need to have some system that will allow us to hold others accountable.

At the start of my career, my organizational tools consisted of  a pocket memo pad and a set of tickler files. When someone borrowed something from me, I immediately made a note in that memo pad, something like "Expect to receive XYZ book from Steve. Loaned on Oct. 3." After asking myself when I wanted to see that reminder, I would drop the little slip of paper into the appropriate tickler file.

When I placed an order with a company, I would take a copy of the order and write "Expect to receive" on the top of the form, ask myself when I should expect for it to arrive, and throw the form in the tickler file for around that time.

When someone was supposed to handle a task and then get back with me, a little note saying "Expect to receive reply from John" went in the tickler file for around the time I wanted to check on progress.

Over time, "Expect to receive" was shortened to "ETR," and although the tools have changed, that acronym has stuck. Instead of a slip of paper thrown into a tickler file, most of those "ETR" items become tasks on my digital to-do list. When the ball is in the other person's court, I have a to-do beginning with "ETR," containing the name of the person, what I am expecting, and has an appropriate due date assigned. I can forget about it. The system does my remembering.

When the due date arrives, I am looking at the "ETR" item, and there is my trigger to take action. What if I want to see at a glance all of the things that I am expecting from other people? On my digital to-do list I search for "ETR." The result is a complete list of everything I am expecting from someone else in order by due date.

The further we advance in our chosen professions, the more our success depends upon getting work done through other people. Training is important. Having confidence in those with whom we interact is important. However, in spite of training and confidence, people drop the ball. When that happens, the consequences are often felt far up the chain of command.

When we delegate, it takes only a second to decide when we should expect completion of the task and make the appropriate entry on the digital to-do list. That simple habit provides peace of mind. You develop the reputation of being someone who follows up.

Relying on memories for all of our responsibilities does not work. Adding to that trying to remember what we are expecting from others makes the whole thing a recipe for disaster. Our lives are complex, and the complexity requires simple systems.

What are you waiting on from other people? Take a few minutes to identify those tasks, put them on your list, and assign due dates to prompt you to follow up. It's too simple not to do.

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