Advice for the Time-Bound
There are times when you know you should involve others in a
decision, but you absolutely have to make a decision by a certain
time. Tn these cases, consider selecting a fallback decision-making
For example, you could announce: “We have a critical deci
sion 1 0 make that affect s all of us, and it must be made by ten
1 7 4 CRUCIAL CONVERSATIONS
sharp. I propose that we use consensus to decide. However, if by
9:45 we have not come to consensus, then it will become a con
sult decision. I will use your input, and I will decide.”
This strategy allows you to try for the optimum decision-mak
ing method, but it leaves you a back door without making you
look like a despot when time runs out.
MAKING ASSIGNMENTS- PUTTING DECISIONS
Now let’s take a look at the final step. You’ve engaged in healthy
dialogue, filled the pool of meaning, decided how you’re going
to draw from the pool, and eventually come to some decisions.
It’s time to do something. Some of the items may have been
completely resolved during the discussion, but many may
require a person or team to do something. You’ll have to make
As you might suspect, when you’re involved with two or more
people, there’s a chance that there will be some confusion. To
avoid common traps, make sure you consider the following four
• Does what?
• By when?
• How will you follow up?
To quote an English proverb, “Everybody’s business is nobody’s
business .” If you don’t make an actual assignment to an actual
person, there’s a good chance that nothing will ever come of all
the work you’ve gone through to make a decision.
MOVE TO ACTION 1 75
When it’s time to pass out assignments, remember, there is no
“we.” “We,” when it comes to assignments, actually means, “not
me.” It’s code. Even when individuals are not trying to duck an
assignment, the term “we” can lead them to believe that others
are taking on the responsibility.
Assign a name to every responsibility. This especially applies
at home. If you’re divvying up household chores, be sure you’ve
got a specific person to go with each chore. That is, if you assign
two or three people to take on a task, appoint one of them the
responsible party. Otherwise, any sense of responsibility will be
lost in a flurry of finger-pointing later on.
Be sure to spell out the exact deliverables you have in mind. The
fuzzier the expectations, the higher the likelihood of disappoint
ment. For example, the eccentric entrepreneur Howard Hughes
once assigned a team of engineers to design and build the world’s
first steam-powered car. When sharing his dream of a vehicle that
could run on heated water, he gave them virtually no direction.
After several years of intense labor the engineers successfully
produced the first prototype by running dozens of pipes through
the car’s body-thus solving the problem of where to put all the
water required to run a steam-powered car. The vehicle was
essentially a giant radiator.
When Hughes asked the engineers what would happen if the
car got into a wreck, they nervously explained that the passen
gers would be boiled alive, much like lobsters in a pot. Hughes
was so upset in what the crew came up with that he insisted they
cut it up into pieces no larger than three inches. That was the
cnd of the project.
Lcarn from Hughes. When you’re first agreeing on an assign
mcnt, c lari fy up front the exact details of what you want.
1 76 CRUCIAL CONVERSATIONS
Couples get into trouble in this area when one of the parties
doesn’t want to take the time to think carefully about the “deliv
erables” and then later on becomes upset because his or her
unstated desires weren’t met. Have you ever remodeled a room
with a loved one? Then you know what we’re talking about.
Better to spend the time up front clarifying exactly what you want
rather than waste resources and hurt feelings on the back end.
To help clarify deliverables, use Contrasting. If you’ve seen
people misunderstand an assignment in the past, explain the
common mistake as an example of what you don’t want. If pos
sible, point to physical examples. Rather than talk in the
abstract, bring a prototype or sample. We learned this particular
trick when hiring a set designer. The renowned designer talked
about what he would deliver, and it sounded great to us. Twenty
five thousand dollars later he delivered something that would
never work. We had to start over from scratch. From that day on
we’ve learned to point to pictures and talk about what we want
and don’t want. The clearer the picture of the deliverable, the
less likely you’ll be unpleasantly surprised.
It’s shocking how often people leave this element out of an
assignment. Instead of giving a deadline, people simply point to
the setting sun of “someday.” With vague or unspoken deadlines,
other urgencies come up, and the assignment finds its way to the
bottom of the pile, where it is soon forgotten. Assignments with
out deadlines are far better at producing guilt than stimulating
action. Goals without deadlines aren’t goals; they’re merely
How Wi l l You Fol low Up?
Always agree on how often and by what method you’ll follow up
on the assignment. It could be a simple email confirming the
MOVE TO ACTION 1 77
completion of a project. It might be a full report in a team or
family meeting. More often than not, it comes down to progress
checks along the way.
It’s actually fairly easy to build follow-up methods into the
assignment. For example: “Call me on my cell phone when you
finish your homework. Then you can go play with friends.
Or perhaps you’ll prefer to rely on milestones: “Let me know
when you’ve completed your library research. Then we’ll sit down
and look at the next steps.” Milestones, of course, must be linked
to a drop-dead date. “Let me know as soon you’ve completed the
research component of this project. You’ve got until the last week
in November, but if you finish earlier, give me a call.”
Remember, if you want people to feel accountable, you must
give them an opportunity to account. Build an expectation for
follow-up into every assignment.