ASK-ACTION Emails

Have you ever gotten one of those rambling emails in which the request is buried somewhere in a sea of asides? Given that it is from your boss, you press on trying to divine what the &%#@^ she is asking for! (note, all examples are fictional and any resemblence between current and past bosses and this example is purely coincidental).

Alternatively, you receive an email that clearly articulates its purpose in the first two lines and a quick scan tells you what to do or even whether it is applicable to you. If you would rather receive (or send) the second type of email, read on to learn about the ASK/ACTION format.

What are you ASKing of me?

An ASK/ACTION Email looks something like this:

Ask-Action Email Format

The Elements of an ASK

There are four parts to an ASK/ACTION email that help to make it clear:

  1. SUBJECT:  that provides a summary and the deadline.
  2. ASK: What is the context for this email.
  3. ACTION: What do the recipient(s) need to do; a clear statement of what needs to be done, by whom and by when.
  4. BODY: Additional details as applicable.

After the two liner, additional information is provided to flush out the request.  Nevertheless, this is the ASK/ACTION email format.

Bonus Points and Additional Links

Some other thoughts and suggestions when using an ASK/ACTION email:

  • If you are using the Lost Assignment and Task Epidemic methodology, consider using the TASK name in the subject line.
  • Send one email for one ASK/ACTION; apologize though and note if multiple emails are coming through.
  • Personalize your emails if possible.
  • For group emails, consider following up with a short conference call to explain the ask, this allows for more than one channel of communication.
  • Send a meeting invite out as a reminder only, thus the above email would be converted to a meeting with a location of ‘Reminder Only’ for 2099-12-31 at 4pm.
  • Use the BCC to reduce email churn but notify people at the beginning, for example: You have been BCC’d to protect your privacy.
  • If you are including documents but have a shared repository (e.g. network drive, SharePoint, etc) note that there is a courtesy attachment but specify the master version with a link: Master Version: M-Drive:2098-2099\Analysis\HelpMe\.

Some other links and thoughts on this:

…. And I Endorse This Message.

Recently the Edmonton Chapter of the Financial Management Institute reached out to three levels of government to promote their May 17, 2017 Mental Health Event.  The result: two endorsements and some notes on how to ask senior officials and politicians to promote an event.

Why Do you Need an Endorsement?

A little context please… You are on a committee of some sort.  It may be for a volunteer organization (e.g. FMI, Scouts, church or work related) and you are doing something special (running a conference, publishing a book, launching a program or a website).  In doing this you would like someone important (politician, senior public servant, corporate officer or religious official – collectively these are affectionately known as the “grand pooh bahs of something” or the GPBS) to acknowledge or endorse the thing you are doing.

Because this is a memory jog for me, the focus of this blog is an assumption that you are on the board of a FMI Chapter here in Canada and you want a GBPS to endorse your upcoming conference. The first question to ask is ‘Why do you want/need a GPBS endorsement?‘; typical reasons include:

  • Mercantile: to increase sales to an event because you can point to the “GBPS’ endorsement” as proof the organization thinks it is important.
  • Extending a Corporate or Social Policy: increase the credibility of the event by showing that if good ole’ GBPS says it is important, it must be.
  • Immediate or Future Marketing: asking for an endorsement is one way that a GBPS will have a better awareness of your organization.  Reminding the GBPS of the endorsement is a potential ice breaker for other discussions.
  • Get Around Training Limitations: organizations may have constrained training budgets.  Having an organization’s GBPS endorse the event is a way to pry open the coffers.

What Am I Endorsing – the So What Question?

The next question to ask is what is in it for the GBPS?  This is critical as it is easier to get an endorsement that aligns with a policy, initiative or passion of the person rather than the GBPS being neutral, indifferent, or worse, hostile to your upcoming conference.

The reality is that the garden variety GBPS is probably interested in many of the same things you are.  In fact an endorsement could be a cheap and easy way for the GPBS to show progress on a subject area with very little cost or effort to them or their office.  For example, the theme of the May 17 FMI-Edmonton conference introduced above was a mentally healthy work place.  This was important to both the senior official from the Alberta government (who is passionate about employee engagement) and is central the federal government as well (the senior official has devoted considerable effort promoting mental health within the federal public service).

So, What Do you Want?

Be very clear what you want and articulate it early.  The following list of ‘ASKS’ is ordered from the easiest to the hardest for a GBPS to provide to your organization:

  1. Provide a letter of introduction or greetings.
  2. Provide written, in person or video opening comments and greetings.
  3. Endorse attendance and use this endorsement in FMI communications.
  4. Attend, speak or present at the event.

A letter of greetings is very low-cost for a GBPS particularly if you mostly write the letter for them (see more on this below).  Providing opening comments to a conference is slightly harder but once again are made easier if you write the first draft.  Attendance, video greetings or presentations are tough.  A GBPS’ calendar is not their own and even if they say they will attend they have a nasty habit of bailing at the last moment.  An endorsement to attend is also difficult to provide particularly if it sets up a precedence for other conferences.

The Care and Feeding of a GBPS

As noted above, the office of the GBPS is probably swamped – so make their life simple; this means doing the following (the first two bullets are recaps from above – but worth repeating):

  • Understand why you want the endorsement.
  • Be clear how this helps the GBPS achieve their goals and what is the ASK.
  • Send a clear request through formal channels (if they exist) but also use your informal networks to promote the endorsement with the GBPS.
  • Provide the GPBS with samples and even write the first draft as applicable.
  • Follow up with a courtesy phone call or email; be short, sweet and extremely respective of the person’s time.  For example, Betty is the Chief of Staff for the Deputy Minister GBPS; a phone call may follow this script:
    • JOHN: “Hello Betty, it is John Smith here. I am following up on an email I sent you two days ago concerning Mr. GBPS providing a letter of endorsement for our FMI conference on left-handed screw drivers.  Can you confirm that your office has received it?”
    • JOHN: “You did, perfect and thank you for confirming this.”
    • JOHN: “As you work through your internal processes, if you have any questions about the conference I am happy to answer them on the phone, email or pop down to your office.”
    • JOHN: “May I follow-up in two weeks to see how the letter is progressing?”
    • JOHN: “Is there anybody else I should be speaking with from your office so I don’t bother you”
    • JOHN: “Thank you very much for taking the time to talk and confirm the endorsement letter is in progress, it is greatly appreciated!”
  • Email is the typical way to initiate contact.  A sample format can be found at the bottom of the blog but generally is broken into the following:
    • 1. Salutation and who is FMI: A quick overview of who you are and what is FMI.  1-2 sentences is lots but include some links at the bottom in case the GBPS’ staff needs to do some research.
    • 2. The ASK and the WHY: Provide 1-3 sentences of what you are asking for, by when, how it will be used and what is in it for the GBPS.
    • 3. Thank You and the Sample: Close the email and include a sample (as applicable) for the ASK.  This may be in the email or attached.

Follow Up and Usage

When you have received the endorsement, immediately send a thank you note to the people who made it happen.  1-2 lines very short expressing your appreciation.

Hi Betty, John Smith here from FMI.  I received the endorsement letter and I wanted to let you know it is perfect.  I strongly believe that this conference will really advance an understanding of left-handed screw drivers and you and your office helped to make this happen.  Once again, on behalf of my board, thank you.

Only use the endorsement in manner you said you were going to use it.  If you said it was going to be on the chapter website, don’t necessarily send it out via your Linked in account to all of your users.  Think of the endorsement as a matter of trust – respect that gift of trust.

After the Event

The last step is easily as important as all the others above, let the GBPS know how the conference went and the impact of their endorsement.  Once again a quick email is sufficient.  Thank the GBPS re-affirms the time they spent providing the endorsement, increases your brand recognition and improves the chances of getting a future endorsement.

Hi Betty, John Smith from FMI.  I wanted to let you know the May 17 conference on left-handed screw drivers was a complete success.  3,000 enthusiastic public servants attended and we really advanced an understanding of this issue.  Once again the endorsement letter Mr. GBPS provided really helped to make this conference successful.  Thank you once again!

Links

Hello Ms. EBPS,

I am a Director with the Government of Widgetland but I am writing you wearing my other hat as President of the Financial Management Institute (FMI) Yegville Chapter. I am a volunteer board member with this not for profit organization and our primary purpose is to deliver high quality learning events on topics that are of interest to a public sector audience from all three levels of government. Our next event will be coming up on Wednesday May 17, 2098 and will include an impressive lineup of speakers who will address the topic of ‘The Safe Use and History of the Left Handed Screwdrivers‘.

I know in your role as Deputy Minister of Grand Pooh Bah and with our provincial government focus on employee engagement, you have a strong desire to support and encourage healthy left-handed activities and a resilient workforce that is well positioned for the future. So would you be willing to provide some written greetings from the Government of Widget Land that could be included in our moderator’s opening remarks? I believe that your message would be well received by our audience and would help boost our profile as well as share a positive message. Thank you in advance for considering my request and I look forward to hearing your reply in the near future.

By way of additional background we are part of the National Financial Management Institute of Canada that serves over 2,800 members across Canada. www.fmi.ca

In addition, the link below will give you some additional information about our upcoming event as well as past events that were delivered by the Yegville Chapter.

http://www.fmi.ca/chapters/yegville/

I have taken the liberty of providing some suggested content and format:

Format: an open letter from Ms. GBPS to members of the Widget land Public Service, fellow public servants and other attendees.  This will be reproduced digitally in the front of the pre-conference notes.

Re: Greetings from the Deputy Minister of Grand Pooh Bah.

Dear Colleagues,

[Note to  GBPS’s staff, possible themes in the message]…

  • Greetings from the Widgetland Public Service.
  • Public servants from all levels of all governments need to create open, inclusive and healthy workplaces for staff and colleagues.
  • Attending a conference such as this one is one way to learn more about how to build such work places.
  • Meet fellow public servants and learn how we can better serve our constituents through a healthy work place.
  • Safety is a paramount concern for the government of Widgetland and left handed screw drivers caused more than 1,000 injuries last year in our province.

Beyond the Big Honkin’ Binder

Have you ever had the unenviable task of creating a procedure for something?  Maybe a high level set of policies or a hands on ‘How-To’ guide.  Great – now picture the end result in your mind.  Got it pictured?  Okay, where is it now?

Documentation is a Waste of Time

I am willing to bet your picture is of dozens or hundreds of hours work which ended up in  a dusty binder.  The binder was already obsolete when produced, dangerously wrong in a few places and generally ignored.

There are a number of reasons for documentation to be a waste of time (see below for a blog which discusses this).  One of the reasons can be the medium; how information is used, stored and communicated to the end user.  Wood fiber (aka paper) and binders have certain merits and wikis have others.

Read on for the Non-Big Honkin’ Binder Solution

Wikis are a social media or collaboration tool and Microsoft SharePoint comes equipped out of the box with Wikis.  How to use this feature is the subject of the January 2017 Financial Management Institute article: “Big Honkin’ Binder“.

Why SharePoint?  Because most organizations already have it installed and with a little bit of patience and effort you can make it do some cool things. The following links systematically walks an organization through creating a Wiki based procedure guide.  As a bonus, there are two side bars on minimalism and questions to ask before creating procedures.

Table of Contents and Links to Article’s Director’s Cut

Writing as a Team Sport – Wikies and Helpers

I have been able to call upon friends and colleagues to help me craft articles:

In all of these cases, the contributors provided me with excellent advice and the resulting articles were much better as a result.  This article is no exception: SharePoint as a Documentation Tool; Life Beyond the “Big Honkin’ Binder”.

Thank you (AGAIN in some cases) for the Use of Your Brain

Of course no good deed ever goes unpunished and to that end, the following are the folks who have helped me with the friendly-peer-review.  Hopefully I can return the favor in the future.  Also, if you are on the list and are logging this as professional development, feel free to refer to this post and notice below.

Person

Organization

Chad B. Government of Alberta
Eric S. Government of Alberta
Howard T. Government of Alberta
Mavin K. Government of Alberta
Mona E. Self Employed
Paul B. Government of Alberta
Terry E. Retired
Uday D. United Nations

To whom it may concern, the above individuals were asked to perform a friendly-peer review of an article (2017 – Life Beyond the “Big Honkin’ Binder” published in the Financial Management Institute of Canada January, 2017, FMI*IGF eJournal. The estimated time to perform this review was between 2 to 3 hours completed in early September, 2016. All of the above individuals demonstrated a firm grasp of the subject matter and helped to create-net-new original thought and critique through this peer-review which will be reflected in the final article. 

Guts, Gory and the Organization

Giulia Enders has written a delightful book on our Guts.  If the title was not sufficient the sub-title describes it all: Gut: The Inside Story of Our Bodys Most Underrated Organ.

Gut is a good read for anyone who digests food (which pretty much covers everyone living) and is a potential lesson for organizations that there is more complexity in a system then we can ever imagine.

Have Some Guts, Read Gut

Gut is a pretty easy read.  Enders presents the physiology of the Gut in a very accessible manner and explains the key functions of the major organs (e.g. stomach, small/large intestines, liver, etc.).  Originally published in German, the English translation has great cheek and humour.  In fact, Gut would make an excellent text-book for junior or senior high school biology given its easy accessibility.

As a microbiologist, Enders delves into the other organ of our body, the microbiota of the gut.  Based on current research, Enders makes the case that the dividing line between where our cells start and bacteria and other germs end is not as clear cut as we may think. For example:

  • Children born via Caesarean section are not endowed with the bugs found within their mothers’ birth canal.  As a result they must source their bugs from the environment and these may not be the most beneficial.  These children take months or years to develop a healthy gut microbiota.  They are also at a risk of developing asthma or allergies.
  • Breast feeding has a similar impact on allergies and the like.  Mothers milk not only feeds the baby but also contains nutrients galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS) to feed the child’s gut.
  • The gut’s bacteria helps to train our immune system to not only recognize threats but to also not over-react to them.  As a result, this reduces allergies, asthma and potentially juvenile diabetes.
  • We periodically wipe out all or portions of our microbiota through the use of antibiotics, poor diet and stress.  When the good bugs depart their spots can be replaced by the less than desirable who then can be difficult to displace.
  • The appendix is not a slacker who does not realize its time has passed.  Current research indicates that the appendix is a store house of good bacteria that can repopulate the gut if the intestines have been flushed due to diarrhea.

Organization’s Need Guts

Ender has not only written a very accessible book that discusses such delicate matters as what our poop should look like, she has reminded us that perceptions of systems are based on best available information at a point in time.  For the gut, bacteria are necessary to not only break down food but to also stress the immune system so it does not over or under react.  Structures such as appendices may appear useless but turn out to be vital to our long term health.

The gut can be used as an analog for organizations.  Poop jokes aside, a healthy organization is more complex and mysterious then it first appears.  While we may be inclined to oversimplify them, organizations have interactions and systems that may not be immediately apparent.

Elevators are Like Guts – They Mix and Separate

Here is one small example: riding elevators.  In my building a new system has replaced the traditional ‘up’ button with destination buttons.  Rather then jumping on the first elevator going up, you select your floor and proceed to that lift going exactly to that floor plus perhaps a few floors above and below yours.

This system has dramatically improved the speed by which people are carried to their floors – and it has cut the accidental and random interactions of people.  Previously who you got on with was chance.  As a result, there was an opportunity to interact with a variety of people who you may only see intermittently.  Now the elevator ride is much more homogenous – you ride with people from one floor above or below.

More efficient, yes – beneficial to the organization – not necessarily.  In as much as good bacteria trains our immune system and a diverse flora is better for us, random interactions and non-sterile organizational mixing is also of value.  Good organizations need slight agitation, a diverse culture and some randomness to be effective and healthy – just like a good gut.  In addition, organizations should recognize that individuals who may not seem to be part of a main structures may in fact have a disproportionate impact on the health of the culture.  Introducing the occasional disruptive employees/contractors, the mail room clerk who is a clearing house of information across many floors or a cafeteria that promotes chance encounters vertically and horizontally across the organization.

Embrace your Internal and Organizational Micro-biota

The gut is more complex than we ever imagined and has a stronger influence well beyond converting food to energy and nutrition.  In the same way, organizations are more complex then we can imagine and elements we may think of being without use can turn out to be instrumental to its health.  Enjoy Enders’ gut and good luck with your biotas – both the micro and organizational varieties.

Innovation Bingo

On September 21, 2016, the Edmonton FMI Chapter hosted the following session (detailed description found below in the ‘blog-annex’: Fostering Innovation in the Public Service When Money is Tight.  Part of the conference was a game entitled ‘Innovation Bingo’.  The objectives of the game were as follows:

  1. Help participants assimilate knowledge about innovation.
  2. Assist in networking with other participants, particularly those outside of ones normal circle of associates.
  3. Win some prizes.

How the Game was Played

  • As part of the pre-conference notes and as a physical hand out, each participant was given a bingo card (see the last two pages of the pre-conference notes: FMI-2016-09-21-Innovation-PreNotes or download Innovation Bingo.
  • Instructions were provided on the card, informally at each table by event leader and then en masse at the start of the session.
  • The card was alluded to a few times by the moderator and during the conference.
  • The card had two sides:
    • Personal Information: name, birth month, interests, and needs.
    • Bingo card proper.
  • At the end, prizes were distributed but only if the individual was willing to share the results of their card.

Assessment of the Game

The following conclusions were drawn from the results of the game:

  1. The game itself provided a reasonable ice breaker at table.
  2. Individuals did not actively use the card outside of their table and there was limited interaction or discussion with the card.
  3. The room itself however appeared to be well engaged and networked suggesting that the card and game provide some social license that eased initial conversations.

Conclusions and Future Use of Innovation Bingo

  • An en masse ice breaker game can work at the table level.
  • Room level coordination requires greater coordination which would detract from the program.
  • Conclusion: ‘Bingo’ games of varying forms can be used in other FMI events but should be downplayed and use for fun things such as prize distribution.

Blog Annex – FMI Event Description:

Fostering Innovation in the Public Service When Money is Tight. 

Public servants are expected to be innovative while working in a risk averse environment. This inherent conundrum is compounded during times of fiscal restraint when ideas are solicited but resources to execute few. This session will investigate innovation in the public services from a number of facets.

What is innovation, how do you get it, how do you keep it and when should you ignore it? Next, how to propose, implement and sustain an innovative idea or culture in an environment that is less than ideal. Finally, thoughts and strategies of making the case for innovation during times of fiscal restraint; after all, never let a good crisis go to waste. 

Six PoC Questions for Success

Proofs of Concept (PoC) are great.  They allow one to test a small component and then apply success (or failure) to future endeavours.  Certainly the all time champion of the PoC are the Myth busters.  Adam and Jamie would start each myth with a small-scale test before going big (and with the obligatory BIG explosion).

To Hack or to Formalize a PoC

PoCs come in many sizes.  At one end is the developer who experiments and comes up with a workaround or a more elegant way to achieve a result (aka a good ‘hack’).  On the other end is an organization that incrementally works toward a final objective.  For example sending a series of Apollo missions into space with each one adding on to the knowledge and experience of its successor.  This blog considers more than a midnight pizza fueled hack-a-thon but much less than sending humans into the unknown.

Buzz Aldrin Apollo 11 - the beneficiary of a series of Proof of Concepts.

Buzz Aldrin Apollo 11 – the beneficiary of a series of Proof of Concepts.

The Scientific Process (sort of) to the Rescue

One of human’s greatest achievements was the development of the Scientific Method which involves (courtesy of dictionary.com):

noun; 1. a method of research in which a problem is identified, relevant data are gathered, a hypothesis is formulated from these data, and the hypothesis is empirically tested.

The following Six PoC Questions for Success is loosely based on the above method.  The intent is to help an organization understand why a PoC is a good idea and the result.  At the same time, this is ‘just-enough’ formalization.  After all, it is important to let the brilliant folks develop ‘elegant-hacks‘ without too much paper work.

1. What was the Business problem being addressed?

Why was a PoC identified?  Generally this is to address a specific business problem.  Pure research is okay as an objective for a PoC.  That is developing technologies or techniques with no immediate application but future potential value for an organization.

2. How is the problem currently being solved?

The answer to this question is that it is often not solved, done through intuition or completed via a manual/semi-automated process. This question helps the organization understand what to do the with the results of a PoC.  If the manual process is only slightly more costly then a fully automated variety, why bother with the complexities of automation?

3. The Question

In effect this is the hypothesis portion of the scientific method.  Ideally this question should be a simple Yes/No.  If the nature of the question changes through the PoC process, that is okay – but the evolution of the question should be included as part of the final report.  Thus we may have started asking question X but we ended up answering question Y.  The reason is that X was too big/small/wrong and Y was answerable.

Defining the question is important so your PoC team does lose its way and they have a touchstone to come back to. A bit of formalization around how they can change, extend, shrink or otherwise amend the question is important.

4. What were the results at the end of the project?

This question should have two parts, a) and b).  Part a) is the predicted result.  By including a prediction, the PoC can stay focused on the intended result.  This is not to discount secondary benefits or chance discoveries but it does help to ensure that a PoC does not become its own self-sustaining cottage industry. Consider keeping part a) secret from the PoC team if you want the benefits of the double blind effect.

Part b) is what happened, what were the results?  This should support the response to the question answered above.  Ideally the result is Yes or No but it might be Maybe.  Of course everyone wants a momentous discovery every time.  However failure should be seen as a positive result – such a result may have saved an organizations considerable time, talent and treasure.

5. What are the next steps?

This should be a very practical listing of how to use these results.  Examples of next steps may include refining a subsequent PoC, engaging in a larger scale test or moving the resulting solution to production.

6. What is the Future Vision, What is Possible?

Question five focuses on the practical and immediate application of the PoC results.  Question six let’s the team blue sky a bit and extrapolate findings to larger contexts.  This is part of the fun and value of the PoC – the larger application of something new.

No Explosion – Using the Six Questions

Sorry, unlike the Mythbusters, there is no end of blog explosion.  Instead, these questions are a handy reminder of the things to consider when a PoC is being suggested.   Let me know your thoughts on the six questions.  Would you add a question or take away one or more of them?