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Getting Things Done When You Are Not in Charge

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You are not in charge and you want to make a difference: that is the dilemma. You may not know who is in charge in today's changing, temporary, and virtual organizations, but you know you are not! You are searching for ways to contribute through the work you do and gain some personal satisfaction in the process. This book can help you do just that.

In this new edition of his classic book, Geoff Bellman shows readers how to make things happen in any organization regardless of their formal position. The new edition has been written for a wider audience, including people in both the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors, paid and volunteer workers, managers and individual contributors, contract and freelance workers. More than seventy percent of the material is brand new, including new examples, new chapters, new exercises, and much more.

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Chapter 1: A Model for Getting Things Done

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Often, what we need is a simple way to dig through the messiness of task forces, councils, or committees to which we belong. That’s what this model is about. It gives us a way of sorting all the information that inundates us; it helps us decide what is important, and to sort it from what is not. Our hope of influencing our organizations increases when we have a way of understanding them. The Getting Things Done (GTD) model has been useful to many people over the years. You will see this GTD model repeatedly; it is the hook upon which the content of this book hangs. The model’s usefulness is directly related to its simplicity. You can remember it in the middle of a meeting; you can use it to ask questions or to seek or sort the information you need. Or, you can use it to sort out issues within your own life. Or, an entire organization can pause to consider this model.

Consider the four elements of the GTD model:

This model puts you in the pivotal role. You are potentially powerful; you can connect the dots, making a solid change triangle. You are key to the change. But for this to happen, you have to step out of the PEOPLE corner and define yourself as someone who is willing to take action. Like the person in this example: A worker in a manufacturing plant noticed that disagreements between her shift and the next shift were increasing, reaching the point where they were blaming each other for everything and hardly talking. She decided to do something about it. She gathered a few key PEOPLE over coffee to begin to discuss the REALITY of what was going on and what they WANTED. They agreed that they all wanted work to be a more positive experience. They identified and agreed to work on two problems. None of this would have happened if that one worker had not separated herself from all of the PEOPLE and taken individual action. She brought the issue; she gathered the right people; they identified what they wanted and what they had; they took constructive action.

 

Chapter 2: “Why is That Important?”

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When attempting to move people from where they are right now toward something else, we often ask what is important to them? Good question, but I think not the core question. Ask them what and they will tell you the object, the person, the destination, the goal. That’s helpful, but it stands in front of what they want even more deeply, does not reach for the source of the motivation. We know what they want, but why? For example, teenagers often want cars. What they want is pretty clear: a car. But why? Recognition, independence, excitement, freedom, fulfillment, attractiveness, friends—these are the whys behind the goal of car; these are continuing sources of motivation for these kids, whether they have a car or not.

And, when you want to help people in your workplace move from their current reality, you need to appeal to the whys behind their goals. Sure, talk with them about what they want, but more important, find out why they aspire to that goal. “Why is that important?” calls forth the deeper reasons and feelings behind the goal. Responses to the what question elicit concrete, material, short-term goals; the why question yields the heartfelt convictions and values that support the more tangible goals in life.

 

Chapter 3: Pursuing Your Aspirations

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There YOU are, surrounded by the WANTS, the REALITY, and the PEOPLE in your organization. You are considering what you WANT the organization to do, what you WANT others to do, what you WANT to do together. Before moving others, you must move yourself. You must have clarity about what you want, your ability to put your wants forth, and your willingness to do so. We will step into the shaded portions of the GTD model as we consider:

The way to success in your work is to pursue and affirm what you want out of your life. This requires much more clarity about your life and wants than your organization usually asks of you. The organization’s game is usually confined to what it wants and how you might help it get there. That is well and good, but it is not necessarily the way to build your investment or power. Define yourself, define your wants, and make the organization game a subset of your life game.

If this were as obvious as it appears, we would acknowledge it more often. Too often we run off it the direction of what we feel we want before putting more thought behind it. Knowing what you want will serve you as you attempt to get things done: It will help you be clear with yourself, focusing your time and energy. It will help you be clear with others; you will be more compelling, more powerful with them. Others will know what they are signing up for; you will have clearer agreements with them and be more likely to be able to count on them.

 

Chapter 4: Discovering Dreams

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Established WANTS anchor the top corner of the GTD model. The clearer the WANTS, the more specific you can be about the gap between the WANTS and REALITY. And, clear WANTS tell us about the motivation and energy available to us in the key PEOPLE. The previous chapter helped you imagine what you want and value, a good step before attempting to move your organization. Next, begin involving others in the same process; you need to know what they want—especially what they want that you also want. Your focus, and the primary focus of this chapter, is helping others discover what they want.

Here is a sampling of wants collected from group meetings in an Internet company. When asked what they want, people said:

I offer this diverse array of wants so you will think about what is going on in the minds and hearts of the people with whom you work. A similarly diverse array faces you when you begin your work of aligning what your key people want. They are wondering and weighing what you might be offering against what they want. “How will this help me get what I want?” is the question on their minds. Their wants, and their self-serving question, deserve your respect.

 

Chapter 5: What is Really Happening?

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REALITY is the mucky ground you walk on, run across, skip through, and slip in each day of your life. Whether at home or at work, REALITY is always there demanding your attention. Whatever we get done happens in the present, the now, the current REALITY. If we have any hope of engaging others in changing the places we work, we have to work with them in the present; we have to discover our shared sense of what is real now. And if we want to appeal to our more pragmatic colleagues, we have to speak to them in terms of what is going on now. We first have to agree upon what is really happening before we can move forward together. So that is the key question of this chapter: What is really happening?

Often, we get so caught up in REALITY, we begin to doubt there is anything else. Witness your coworkers (or yourself) defining the work world as the entire world. Notice people with no tolerance for other world views, or those who cannot stand “dreamers.” These distortions on REALITY make it central and compelling. Any larger life energy is captured in the immediate focus on work. This corner of the GTD model is our anchor in the “real world” while we reach for our WANTS. REALITY is confusing and chaotic—and captivating. Befuddling and bewildering—and bewitching. This is where our dreams begin to come to life.

 

Chapter 6: Build Common Understanding

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We have explored the importance of our WANTS to getting things done. These dreams pull us toward our better selves; they pull us from the present toward a finer future. But they cannot carry the entire change load. This chapter is about the other two corners of the GTD model and the connection between them. This chapter connects REALITY with the key PEOPLE. The directive “Build Common Understanding” tells you to help key PEOPLE develop a shared appreciation of what is going on right now. That’s a role for you to focus on throughout the chapter. To oversimplify, before YOU come along, every person holds their separate understanding of what is going on right now. Your job is to get those individual perspectives out in the open so that people can decide what they know, feel, and believe together. Without help like yours, everyone may continue in their separate perspectives. You can see the opportunity.

It’s a challenge to move people toward a common sense of “what is.” If there are significant issues, many of them will be ready for action and not talk. As mucky as the current reality might be, it is still the base you move from as you step out together. It is the common ground we are anchored in and it can allow us to move forward. But, without the shared understanding, it will hold us back and consume valuable energy.

 

Chapter 7: Face the Politics

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Company politics. Bridge club politics. Church politics. City politics. When you read politics, what words come to your mind? Quickly, come up with three. Chances are, the thoughts and feelings behind these three words reflect your first reactions to the politics that surround you at work. They shape the lens through which you see all interactions. They color the meaning you extract from actions you witness.

Review the words you noted a moment ago: Do they reflect a negative bias? If so, then this chapter is particularly for you—especially if you combine a distaste for politics with frustration about your ability to get things done in your organization. Like you, I have seen the downside of politics. I have observed actions that I saw as politically motivated. I have seen others celebrate the results of their clever political moves. And I have come up on the short end of organizational politics, seeing myself and my work put aside for political reasons. This has angered and hurt me, but in the process I learned a little.

 

Chapter 8: Seek the Priorities

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The theme of an earlier chapter was “Build Common Understanding.” This chapter’s theme of “Seek the Priorities” could be seen as a corollary. Organizations are put together to move us in a common, clear, shared direction, though they seldom work that way. The accelerating pace of change in the world around us shifts priorities constantly— often even before the ink has set on the spreadsheet coming out of the printer. We increasingly live in a world of quick response based more on informed intuition than printed plans. The priorities of the moment become more important than the printed plan. Yes, the priorities usually bow in the direction of the plan, but they have much more life in them.

When managers and decision makers cannot plan fast enough to keep up, they need to rely more on the expertise of people like you. This absence of plans is not the disaster some people talk about. For you— it’s an opportunity! In fact, it just may be that knowing the priorities of the organizations is worse than not knowing, especially if you want to shape those priorities. When the organization is not loudly and widely declaring what is important, you have more room to decide for yourself. Perhaps no position has been taken and you can take it. Successful change makers often capitalize on the organization that has yet to declare its direction.

 

Chapter 9: Who Makes a Difference?

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The organization world is giving increasing emphasis to the importance of PEOPLE. This is not news, but its truth is being underlined in this information age when the unique talents of human beings are more important to work than ever before. Organizations need human hearts and minds, not just muscle. Whether working on new software or a child education project, PEOPLE must invest deeply to assure success. The challenge seems to be shared everywhere: How do we get the right PEOPLE to invest in this organization? (For example, the construction company that is offering employees bonuses and vacations for attracting new employees, or the environmental foundation that is figuring out how to build a board of directors that will attract and retain talented people.)

Accomplishment depends on the PEOPLE in this corner of the GTD model, and the question is “Who makes a difference?” Who affects, or is affected by, the move from REALITY toward WANTS. These are the PEOPLE who must take responsibility for REALITY, aspire to the WANTS, and take action. YOU must work with and through these PEOPLE if you are to get anything done. Without those PEOPLE, YOU become the third corner of the model, and it is all up to YOU. Life has probably already taught you that this does not work. Consider the many people you interact with in your work, community, and personal life:

 

Chapter 10: Enlist Able Partners

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Partner with PEOPLE to achieve what YOU and they WANT. Enlist their commitment and resources, and your job will be made easier—especially over the long term. Much of what you know about the other elements of the GTD model is applied in the dynamic between YOU and the key PEOPLE around you. This is where work relationships are formed. Whether you are “in charge” or not, think partnership if you want to succeed in today’s organizations. When you have some authority, use it as a source of power, but not the only source of power. Focusing only on your authority will reduce your options for constructive action with others—especially given the fact that you don’t have authority over that many people in this world. Solid sense tells you that knowing how to work with others as partners is necessary to your success. This chapter offers many ways of doing that.*

The larger the organization, the more partnership required. Picture partnership as people linked by clasped hands. Now, picture a large and effective organization held together by hundreds of partnerships. . . hundreds, thousands of people clasping hands. . . linking, depending on each other. That image is a better representation of what goes on in our organizations than the boxy charts we so often use to show how the place works. Much of what we will discuss here applies beyond work relationships to social partnerships, friendships, and even marriage. We can learn from all forms of partnership as we consider how to build the working relationships we want with key people around us.

 

Chapter 11: Controlling Work Dynamics

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While building your relationship web, you will notice the strands vary in strength and density according to the relationships you have with people—and not all of this is intentional. Your connection to others is affected by the organization-sanctioned roles you all have. When you take on a formal responsibility that affects others, they deal differently with you. When you have some authority, and can make decisions that involve them, they will treat you differently and you will treat them differently.

This chapter is about those parts of your work where you do have some control, where others are expected to seek you out and get your support. In other words, they come to you partly because they are expected to. They “have to,” and, you hope, they also “want to.” Many staff, service, and support functions in organizations find themselves in this position—for example, when the human resource department reviews personnel decisions and when the comptroller signs the checks. The responsibilities that come with the role affect how the people in those roles are seen. We will look at those dynamics by putting you into this matrix:

 

Chapter 12: Dealing With Decision Makers

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Those individuals and groups of PEOPLE that YOU work with include a category that many of us find troubling. They carry labels like “boss,” “management,” “the board,” “executive,” “the chair,” and “leader.” Whatever we call them, we recognize they have power in the organization— like it or not. And being part of this place means acknowledging that power. This chapter is about dealing with those people whose power you need to get things done. What they have in common is their responsibility to make decisions for the organization about work—including yours.

Just what works with these people? How can you gain their support to assure your success? My answers to these questions share one disturbing characteristic: Respect for their role and authority. I say “disturbing” because my answers bother me—especially when taken out of context. Know that I am trying to open your options; I am searching for more ways to help you succeed; and, as I make the case for the decision makers, I encourage you to understand them more deeply so you will be more successful with them.

 

Chapter 13: How Might You Help?

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The GTD model puts YOU at the center of the action. WANTS, REALITY, and PEOPLE connect to YOU—and often YOU connect them with each other, keeping them from functioning as separate elements. When you lead, others can choose to pursue meaning, to face the truth, to use their talent. YOU offer that opportunity. Or, you may not. Which leads to the focal question “How might you help?” Though this chapter affirms the power available to you from where you sit in your organization, you do not have to do everything. Use yourself judiciously; always consider the possibility that you might not be needed here. With that caution, let’s proceed.

You don’t have to be in charge of the world, or the department, to take charge of your life and your roles in organizations. When you free yourself of the notion that position is the ultimate authority, you can open to discovering the many other powers at your disposal. When you believe that you are uniquely positioned to accomplish something, you can set out to discover just what that something might be. Capitalizing on your position in the middle of an organization is not easy, but it is full of challenge and growth.

 

Chapter 14: Find the Courage to Risk

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From the center of the GTD model, YOU are looking out in three directions as you reach for WANTS and enlist the support of PEOPLE. Since you want to do something, your fine considerations must be translated into action in the present, in the current REALITY. This calls for courage—the courage to risk, in the face of fears and opportunities. Answers to these questions support courageous action:

What do you want to happen now?

What are you willing to do to get it?

What are the risks?

Who needs to know about this?

What are you afraid of?

What are your alternatives?

What will you do?

What have you got to gain?

What have you got to lose?

Can you live with the consequences?

These questions call out your inner choices involving opportunity and caution, risk and protection, courage and fear. Getting things done requires not just taking risks but, often, creating them. It means helping yourself and others step outside familiar boundaries. You help others move toward what they want by doing it first—and that is risky. You do this based on what you want and what you think others want. You see the organization as it could be, and you risk taking steps toward that imagined organization. The challenge is not in finding areas to change, but rather in taking the right risks to bring about changes accepted by the organization. Said differently, it is not so much what you want to change as how you go about it that requires courage and risk.

 

Chapter 15: Making Your Work Rewarding

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There are many possible rewards for doing your work well. Some unique combination of rewards attracts each of us. Consider what the items in these two columns have in common.

These columns are sorted into two types of rewards. The rewards in the lefthand column are external; they are decided and bestowed by others and then given to you (you hope!). They can be wonderful to receive and they are outside your control. Someone else decides how you are performing; they judge you by the rules of their game. I like receiving these rewards; you probably do too. When others recognize our contribution to the organization, we feel affirmed. But we do not control the award, and that is a critical consequence of externally initiated rewards. The righthand column is filled with internal rewards. These come from within and are conferred by you. You reward yourself based on how you performed against what you value. You decide what qualifies you for the award and, when you meet those qualifications, you recognize yourself. You did it; you know it; you feel good about it. All of this is within the goals and roles of the “game” you are designing and playing. These internally initiated rewards are under our control, can be very fulfilling, but are often celebrated alone.

 

Chapter 16: Create Change

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If we could devise a recipe for change, its main ingredients are shown in the GTD model: YOU and the key PEOPLE, their WANTS and the current REALITY. Yes, other herbs, spices, and ingredients can be added to bring out the flavor and consistency of the change you want, but without these four core ingredients, you cannot get the change you hunger for. And it is not simply a matter of throwing all the mixings into the organizational pot and stewing them together; it is much more subtle than that—and that is what this chapter is about. The focus is change, particularly on narrowing the gap between WANTS and REALITY. Yes, the YOU and PEOPLE will be involved, but this chapter is particularly concerned with the nature of change and what is involved in building a constructive tension between what you’ve got and what you want.

People working in organizations often are rewarded for creating stability; that’s what organizations have been about through much of history. Organizations assemble resources toward a common purpose within a structure to produce predictable outputs. No, it doesn’t always work that way, but that is the intent. The important point is that they seek out the “best” way, find it, adopt it, and don’t want to let go of it. And the members of the organization are rewarded for finding and maintaining this stability. Change is particularly difficult in this environment. Building a stable organization that is receptive to instability is a hard notion to grasp. It’s possible, but when people do not understand that concept, they will resist the change rather than welcome it.

 

Chapter 17: Actions That Get Things Done

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This chapter puts aside the concepts and theories in favor of action. It is filled with examples of ways to get things done from where you are. These pages emphasize the practical aspects of leading people and changing organizations—and they all link back to the GTD model. These twenty actions are for the individual on a work team, group, or committee, that is part of a larger organization. Read these actions with your own work group and organization in mind. My suggested actions will not fit exactly with what you need, but they could stimulate ideas that will work for you. Read the actions slowly; circle those that you might be able to use; check those that you are already doing, and cross out those that you wouldn’t consider. Use these twenty actions to help you visualize what you might want to do. Write down actions of your own along the way.

Getting what we want in the future depends on actions like these happening now. All of our grand aspirations and dreams grow from small, practical steps like these, taken daily. By themselves, they don’t look glorious or courageous. Together, they form the heart of our work and life.

 

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