Give Clear Requests to Get Amazing Results
If You’re Careful What You Ask For, You May Be Amazed at the Results

Nancy Settle-Murphy and Karen Bading

How many times have you wondered how someone could have gotten the request that you believed was so clear, so wrong? How much time do team members waste trying to figure out what is really expected of them?

Making unclear requests--and failing to get real agreement--can cost a team dearly, in terms of lost time, morale, squandered resources and perhaps most important, trust. When teams work remotely, the need to be explicit and clear is especially important, given that members have relatively few opportunities to make sure they’ve gotten it right, and need to keep moving forward, even when requests are ambiguous.

Be alert for the telltale signs: Are people saying "yes" even though they know they can’t follow through? Are deadlines missed more often than not? Is there overlap or redundancy in the work being performed? Are people unwilling or unable to delegate tasks, yet struggle to deliver on their own commitments? If any of these are true for your team, it’s time to re-examine how requests are made among team members.

Discover where the real problems lie: Some people simply don’t communicate very clearly, while others haven’t really thought through what they really want or need. Some cultures value harmony above all else, and feel uncomfortable pushing for follow-through. Some people crave aching details about what’s needed, while others are affronted with specific directions about to how to carry out the task, rather than the intended outcomes. The problems often lie with the environment the team may have created, making it unsafe or unwise to say no, or to negotiate a particular task.

Follow this five-question framework as you articulate your requests: By doing so, you’re far more likely to ensure that clear and realistic expectations have been set and agreed to, and that commitments will be kept.

Who’s doing the asking? Find out where the request is coming from, and what the context is. For example, even though one person may be making the request, the real need may be coming from several levels above. Is the request coming from a specific person or a group? If a person, find out what attributes or characteristics are most valued, such as level of detail, thoroughness, punctuality or inclusiveness. What is the motivation for the request, and what will be done with your response? Find out everything you can about who is really doing the asking.

Who is being asked? Be clear about who, exactly, is accountable for getting the work done. After all, people do things—groups don’t. Unless a specific individual has been asked to do something and has agreed to be accountable, you have no real agreement. If an individual has accepted the request, determine whether s/he has the time, knowledge, skills, attitudes, and resources to come through? Just because someone says “yes,” it’s never safe to assume that s/he has the capacity and willingness to fulfill the request, especially if you have no previous working relationship. Some cultures are likely to say “yes” in a public setting to save face. Requesting status updates or checking in regularly will help you learn how this person treats requests s/he has agreed to fulfill.

What’s the action that’s needed? Make sure there is a match between what’s expected and needed by the requester and what is understood and accepted by the recipient. If you’re the requester, be sure to provide an overall context for the request so that the recipient understands how his/her efforts fit into the whole. Actions that are stated in the positive are more likely to be remembered accurately. Be specific about what’s needed. For example, will a high-level draft or a summary suffice, or is a detailed report really needed? What format and length will fit the bill? Are edits or approvals needed? How will the work product be distributed—via email, shared portal, or some other way?

What are the conditions of satisfaction? Typically, we apply our own standards as a default when we’re making a request. If you’re making the request, paint a clear picture. The conditions of satisfaction are the responsibility of the requester. Indicate clearly your criteria for a “professional- looking” document or a “high-quality” presentation. Keep in mind that different functional groups may have different notions about conditions of satisfaction. Let’s take a new product launch. Sales may insist on a product that’s easy and inexpensive to sell, while Engineering may demand that the product must have certain minimum features that may take more time and money to build.

When is the work needed? "ASAP" can be interpreted many different ways. The more unrealistic a request tends to be, the greater the chances it will sit at the bottom of someone’s inbox. If you mean 9AM this coming Monday, say so, and be sure to include the date and time zone, if important. If any time in the next two weeks is acceptable, indicate that as well. Be prepared to negotiate the conditions of satisfaction if the deadline is not easily achievable. For example, perhaps a two-page summary can be cobbled together by Monday, but a 20-page report will take another few days. Be mindful of different notions of time that exist among different cultures.

Validate that the request has been heard accurately: Make sure that you know that the request has been delivered and accepted, which is especially important when you do not have frequent direct contact with the other person. If there’s an opportunity for ambiguity, err on the side of being excruciatingly explicit. While some may prefer to have the big picture only, setting clear expectations helps minimize the need for frequent follow-up later on. Think about what method is best for conveying a request. For example, email may be the best choice when the request is relatively straightforward, while a phone call or even a personal visit may be necessary when the request may meet with some resistance or confusion. Remember: A request is not complete until someone has agreed to it.

Use the five-step request format in emails or other communication: Put "request" in the subject line. You may also seek acknowledgement of the request, with agreed-upon conditions of satisfaction and delivery time. Name the receiver of the request specifically if there’s any doubt, rather than naming a group as responsible.

Include any requests and agreements in meeting output: Remember that a request is just a query until someone agrees to do it. If no one has agreed to do the task, leave the listener blank. People who did not attend the meeting have not necessarily agreed to anything. Publish requests and agreements, including who will act, with what outcome, by when.

About the Authors
Nancy Settle-Murphy is a facilitator of remote and face-to-face meetings, trainer, presenter and author of many articles and white papers aimed at getting the most out of remote teams, especially those that span cultures and time zones. Transatlantic Roundtable: Observations from Europe and the U.S. on International Communication may be of special interest to those who work on global remote teams. Getting Great Results Out of Virtual Meetings is a white paper available only to subscribers of Communiqué. Go to Nancy's Web site for more information about her services, including Webinars focusing on remote facilitation.

Karen Bading is principal and founder of Infrasonics Coaching and Consulting.

© 2007 Chrysalis International, Inc. All rights reserved.