Are You Playing 'Read My Mind!'?


By Bill Sanders, Principal and Sr. Consultant with Roebling Strauss

You know how it feels when something you expected turns out to be not what you expected? The data you needed on Tuesday so you could write your report arrived on Thursday. The order you placed came in on time, but in the wrong color. You drove 45 minutes to meet someone for lunch and they didn't show.

It's frustrating and disappointing at the least, and often expensive to correct. We addressed the first step in responding to these situations here recently in Presuming Goodwill. Now let's address one of the preventative measures you can take to avoid these situations altogether.

The Game

We all play it from time to time. Some more than others. The game is "Read My Mind!" It plays like this; I make a request of you and expect you to read my mind regarding the importance, priority, and quality I expect without being specific. I've just set you up for failure and me up for frustration. And if neither one of us is in the moment, we don't even know we are playing the game.

There are two areas where this game is frequently played.

1. Terms are not defined

Every profession has its own terms, definitions, and TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms). And frequently each term comes with it's own set of assumptions and expectations. The legal definition of "market" has a very different and specific meaning than when used in the vernacular.

A client whose entire business is based on a 15% commission was recently asked to "split" a 10% discount to close a large deal with a major retailer. My client, happy to forego 10% of her commission readily agreed. The sale was made, and when the commission check arrived, the manufacturer had not reduced the commission to 13.5%, but to 10%, representing a 33% reduction in commission. The manufacturer was playing "Read My Mind!" The lack of agreement about the definition of the word split and the resulting commission added unnecessary friction to an otherwise healthy business relationship.

To avoid this, watch for new terms and take the time to ensure that all parties are in alignment on the definitions.

2. Quality Criteria are not provided

Those of us in tech are familiar with specifications both functional and technical, but even we sometimes falter when defining less technical deliverables. Timm Esque taught me that it's fundamentally unfair to ask someone to make a commitment unless that person fundamentally understands what it is they are committing to deliver.

Within Commitment-Based Project Management, which Timm outlines in No Surprises Project Management, defining Quality Criteria is a quick and effective way to document both the quality expected of the deliverable as well as how that quality will be measured. A properly documented quality criteria statement will include not just definitions of what the expected quality of the deliverable is, but also, and perhaps more importantly, what it is not.

Had I understood this in my first job at a startup, it would have saved me much grief. On my first day, the founder gave me five projects and then promptly left on a month-long fund-raising tour. When I realized the scope of what I had committed to do it was a little terrifying. But since I had made the commitment and he wasn't around to clarify or renegotiate with, I dug in and spent the next four weeks working 70+ hour weeks. I was quite proud when he returned that I had completed three of the projects, had the fourth at maybe 60% and had the fifth well underway.

He was not happy. Coming from an engineering background, I had over-engineered everything and had three of the projects committed to trajectories that he wasn't all that keen on pursuing. He was into Minimal Viable Product long before it was popular and in his mind I had wasted a month of overwork without producing much in the way of value.

If you are on the receiving end of the request, insist on understanding expectations. You'll be much more likely to produce exceptional results the first time. And if you are on the requesting end, define the quality criteria when you make the request and then make sure you give people time to absorb the details and ask questions before they commit.

Avoid playing "Read My Mind!" and you'll get a much better result every time.

Bill Sanders is Principal and Sr. Consultant with Roebling Strauss, a boutique consultancy that specializes in delivering dramatic improvements in organizational effectiveness: co-founder and Advisory Board Member of Will Someone, software that facilitates and supports team alignment through commitments: and Co-Lead Link of the Finance Circle for Great Work Cultures, a community dedicated to creating a new norm for work cultures that optimize worker effectiveness and human happiness. Connect with Bill on twitter at @technacea.