Photo: Susan Merrell

Request cycle

Sometimes the same concepts converge on you from different directions. That has been the case for me in regard to a simple but powerful word: request. The idea is that in collaboration, all we can really do is issue requests of each other. Fernando Flores wrote that the request and its corollary, the promise, were the fundamental units of coordinated work. Professor Ron Howard of Stanford University adapted Flores idea into the notion of a quality commitment being one that both parties create and monitor. My version of the quality commitment is the request cycle. It goes like this:

Request - Person A has a need or complaint and expresses it as a request of Person B. A fully-specified request (I heard this phrase from a colleague who consulted at General Motors) includes the conditions for satisfaction of the request. See postscript.

Reply - Person B indicates they have heard the request, understand the conditions for satisfaction, and either accept it or decline.

[Renegotiate] - In this optional step, Person B may run into difficulties or otherwise learn that they may not be able to meet the conditions for satisfaction. The idea here is that with maximum lead time, Person B lets Person A know that they need to renegotiate the conditions for satisfaction (e.g. the deadline).

Report - Person B reports to Person A that they believe they are done. 

Recognize - Person A recognizes the report from B, and either accepts the work product as meeting the conditions of satisfaction, or rejects it and renegotiates a new understanding of what's needed and possible. Ideally the process converges on positive recognition such as thanks for a job well done.

Importantly in this kind of framework there is no reward other than recognition - the professional completion of a request cycle is intrinsically satisfying.

The college interns who work with me always wanted to add two more R's... Respect and Represent. Respect being a kind of recognition, and Represent relating to the broadcasting of your pride.

I have used this framework to manage both up and down. The only kind of relations worth having are consensual/voluntary, so we are all limited to requests, even if/when we have some kind of formal organizational authority.

As it turns out, the concept of a request is core to at least two other organizational frameworks: Non-Violent Communication and Appreciative Inquiry

PS Conditions for satisfaction

I use an old project management framework for specifying conditions of satisfaction: size, quality, resources, and timing. Size means how big a job are you asking for, what is the scope of work? Quality refers to your expectations for quality. Resources refers to, what resources do you think will be needed to complete the job? Timing usually comes down to a deadline. For example, I might ask a colleague to analyze some data. I need to specify the boundaries of the job (what data? what analysis?); the quality level (is this for a peer-reviewed manuscript or do I just need a back of the envelope analysis?); the resources ("please use the copy of Stata that we bought you using project funds last year") and the timing ("I see this as taking 8 hours, please get it back to me by noon tomorrow or let me know if I am off base in my estimate").

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