the ceo magazine, productivity,
Kate Purmal and Lisa Goldman, Co-authors, The Moonshot Effect: Disrupting Business as Usual

CEO of software company Versaic, Burt Cummings learned the hard way about the importance – and power – of making effective requests. After getting into circular and totally unproductive loops with team members involving miscommunications and missed deadlines, Burt got some advice from team Goldman that turned the whole situation around. “I learned that ambiguity is the enemy of results. I – and my entire team – was lacking clarity about expectations, deadlines and results. Once I adopted the magic formula, everything changed. We were able to move faster, accomplish more and cut the stress dramatically.”

The Business of Asking

A request turns words into action. High-performing teams operate on well-formed requests, while ineffective requests contribute to team dysfunction.

In a “command-and-control” work environment, leaders give orders and workers acknowledge them. But many work environments are non-hierarchical; they involve collaboration, autonomy, and distributed decision-making. Effective leaders no longer bark orders; they craft specific goals and make clear and well-formed requests.

A request isn’t a command. By definition, the person receiving the request has the option of not accepting the request, or possibly making a counteroffer (for example, “I can do this by next Tuesday if I delay this other project I’m currently working on.”)

As we note in our book The Moonshot Effect, making effective requests is critical to keeping game-changing projects – aka moonshots – on track. Moonshots often require the contributions and cooperation of individuals across multiple departments or organizations, and the creativity and expertise of many. In pursuing a moonshot, people will ask for assistance and guidance from others on their teams and beyond. Achieving a moonshot requires us to master the art of making effective requests.

Effective requests successfully navigate several potential gaps, including the following:

  • Communication gap: There’s a gap between what you really want and how you ask for it. The gap results from using vague language about what you want, when you want it, or who will do it.
  • Understanding gap: Requests often fail in the gap between the words you use and what the other person hears. Be explicit about expectations and deadlines in order to avoid surprises.
  • Expectation gap: Another potential gap often exists between the expectations and commitments made between parties.
  • Execution gap: Well-communicated requests can be sidetracked by other high-priority tasks. Initiatives can languish indefinitely between commitment and fulfillment. As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

There’s a formula to close the gaps and turn requests into action. It may not come naturally at first, but when you use it consistently, persistence pays off. Clear requests strengthen teams because they eliminate ambiguity, clarify commitments, and deliver results.

Make a Complete and Clear Request

As simple as it may seem, requests often fail because they lack one of the following elements:

  1. A requestor and requestee
  2. Specific requirements
  3. A calendar-ready time frame

Requestor and Requestee

Have you ever heard “requests” like this?

“This needs to be done.”

“Corporate wants to see the numbers.”

“It would be a good idea to...”

People often voice requests like this, then are surprised when nobody makes them happen. Why is there no action? Because these requests lack a requestor and a requestee.

Effective requests are made directly from one individual to another. Be explicit that you are making the request by saying: “I ask that you...” or “Can you do this for me?” If you are asking on someone else’s behalf, name the person. It is equally important to be clear about exactly whom you are asking to take action. Requests fail when no one owns them.

An effective request with a legitimate requestor and requestee sounds like this: “Sue, I ask that you gather input from the team and write a two-page summary for me by next Wednesday at 5 p.m. Will you do that?” 

Specific Requirements

Request a specific outcome, not a process. Requesting an outcome bridges the expectation gap, as the outcome is clearly defined. Focusing on the outcome has other benefits:

  • This type of request demonstrates respect for the requestee’s expertise and initiative. You request the what, and the person responding can determine how to deliver. You can offer suggestions if necessary.
  • The requestee is accountable for a specific outcome rather than an ambiguous action or effort. When asked to research a price point, a person might search the web for 10 minutes and stop after finding nothing. But if you’ve asked for an e-mail with price details on the top three solutions in the market by 3 p.m. on Thursday, January 18, most people will dig until they can deliver the committed outcome.

When you are clear and specific with your requests, people are more likely to be clear and explicit with their commitments in response.

A Calendar-Ready Time Frame

Without a specific time frame, the chances of your request turning into action are unpredictable, subject to forces outside your control. Don’t add this risk to your moonshot; create specific deadlines.

The time frame is a specific date, and may include the actual time of day. Using vague time frames like the following can doom a request:

  • “As soon as possible”: This phrase leaves it to the requestee to determine the deadline and level of urgency.
  • “In 30 days”: Starting from today? Would the end of next month work?

If you want results in a specific number of days, restate the time frame as a specific date. Instead of “in a week,” say, “next Tuesday, the 12th.” When you give a deadline a date, it goes into the calendar. Any conflicts or problems become apparent.

As a final note, psychologists have found that including a reason for a request increases compliance. If the reason for the request is clear, you might also add a reason for the deadline.

Putting this together may sound awkward at first. But when you are disciplined about using well-formed requests, you reap the benefits of faster, more consistent results.

Turning the Ask into Action

The ultimate goal of a request is to get commitment and action. To increase the odds of a positive outcome, establish the following:

  1. A clear, unambiguous response
  2. An agreed-upon follow-up

A Clear Response

When making a request, listen for the response and the commitment. Responses fall into one of three categories:

  • Acceptance (yes)
  • Counteroffer
  • Denial or rejection

If the response is ambiguous, continue asking until you identify which of these three you hear. And beware the noncommittal yes:

  • If you see a nod or lack of explicit response, ask for a commitment: “George, you nodded your head. Does that mean you’ll get me those numbers by Monday?”
  • If you get the noncommittal “That sounds like a good idea,” don’t mistake it for a “yes.” Ask for a commitment.

You may get a counteroffer. For example, George might say, “I can deliver a list of vendors by Monday, as you asked, and the costs by the following Friday. Does that work?” In this case, negotiate until the counteroffer becomes a yes on both sides.

If the answer is no, clarify that fact right away. A clear rejection lets you move immediately to Plan B, which might entail reprioritizing projects or asking someone else. You might change the terms of the request, making a counteroffer of your own: “Can you give me the cost numbers for the largest vendor, Acme, by Monday?”

If you get a yes, identify and restate the commitment. Write the commitment in an action log or note it on your calendar so you can follow up to ensure it is completed on time.

Following Up

Without a follow-up, even the best-formed requests may fall into the execution gap and become buried by a pile of more urgent work.

Start the follow-up process as soon as you get a “yes” to your request. Ask if the requestee needs support to fulfill the request.

  • “What resources do you need to make this happen?”
  • “Is there anything you want from the team or me?”

Define exactly when and how you will check in, and schedule the follow-up in your calendar.

Clearly, every request doesn’t merit this approach. Mission-critical requests warrant thoroughness and following up. Less critical requests may not require such formality.

Final Note: The Red Binder Effect

In a world where people track their lives on smartphones and cloud-based apps, many leaders we work with strengthen commitments for critical requests by recording them in a visible and tangible way.

Yes, we’re talking about paper.

A CEO at a media company took extreme measures to address a chronic problem with her team’s failure to meet milestones. She filled a red binder with pages containing empty columns to track requests and carried it with her to every meeting. The pages consisted of a simple chart that listed three columns: Request, of Whom and by When.

Her red binder served as a tangible reminder that she was tracking and taking seriously her team’s commitments. Within a few weeks, the team was once again delivering on time.

You don’t have to use a red binder. A bright-colored file or clipboard works equally well. Choose something that suits your style yet is visible and obvious to those around you.

Put these practices in place and I assure you, commitments will stop falling through the cracks. It might feel strange for the first week or two, but after 30 days, this approach will be second nature for you and everyone on your team. You might even see it spill over into your personal life. I used these techniques with my teenagers and yes, they were annoyed, but funny thing, I was nagging less and they were getting their chores done! Score one for Mom.


About the Authors

Lisa Goldman is an international management consultant, author, and educator. She has consulted with top executives at companies across the globe including About.com, Apple Inc., AT&T, David’s Bridal, Estée Lauder, and Vodafone, and more than 60 startups. She lives in San Carlos, CA.

Kate Purmal served as a Senior Vice President at SanDisk Corporation, and on the founding management team of Palm Inc. She is a five-time CxO for technology and life sciences companies, and co-founder of two startups that achieved successful exits. She currently serves as a strategic advisor to CEOs and executives, a board member and an angel investor. She lives in Redwood City, CA.

Together, they are the authors of The Moonshot Effect: Disrupting Business as Usual (Wynnefield Business Press, $26.95, www.themoonshoteffect.com).

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