I regularly need to get information from busy people. Sometimes all I need is a brief update for a newsletter; other times I require more extensive content for a technical paper or annual report. But regardless of the amount or frequency, my requests almost always end up at the bottom of the pile. Most people are truly busy with far more urgent, demanding, and usually more important things than providing what I need.
Over the years, I have learned several ways to get what I need from busy people. Like many ‘soft’ skills, I was unaware of what I actually did that was so effective. So, when I was asked to write about it, I had to ask the people I work with to help. Here are some of the things they said:
When I need content from someone, the first thing I do is invite them to send any documentation they already have that might apply to my specific request. From that, I can often glean at least some of what I need, reducing their effort and giving me a foundation to build on. Equally important, this communicates my willingness to do a little extra work to make their job easier. On top of that, what they send often gives me useful context or additional information that I never would have received if I simply waited for them to give me specifically what I asked for.
For many, spending time on formatting, perfect grammar or creating consistent graphs or diagrams can be tedious. So, I always emphasize up front that all they need to give me is the raw content (their expertise) and I will take the time to “pretty it up.” This not only leads to a more timely response, it again honors their time and creates a more collaborative relationship.
When someone tells me they can’t respond to my request until they complete some other task, I often offer my help. By spending a few minutes formatting a slide, editing a paragraph, or creating the best chart for their data, I give them the time and motivation to help me in return. And often, working on that content outside my specific request improves my overall understanding of their subject area and my collegial relationship with them.
With all the urgent matters and critical activities required from the team I work with, it is no wonder that responding to my requests often remains a low priority. Once, someone actually spent more time explaining why responding to me was their lowest priority than it would have taken to simply provide what I asked for! But instead of fighting it, I accept it. I often even joke about how unimportant my requests are. Whether the power of this approach comes from their guilt for my apparent feelings of “unimportance” or from my empathy for their position, I have found this approach works far more effectively (especially long term) than trying to convince someone of how important my request is.
Some people prefer to work independently and others more collaboratively. Some like to write while others prefer to talk. So, I always give people as many options as possible, from email responses inline to face-to-face meetings where I frantically scribble what they sketch on a whiteboard. By giving options and learning each person’s preferred mode of providing information, I not only get what I need in a more timely fashion, I honor the style of the people with whom I work.
There are times when I am not able to deliver a project on time, due to someone not providing what I need. In those cases, I resist blaming or calling out individuals for as long as possible. On rare occasions, I have even taken some of the heat for someone else’s delay. Some may think that a lowered threat of consequences would lead to future delays. But what I have found is that whether out of appreciation or guilt, those people often become my most reliable responders.
I strive to do this in several ways. First, I make sure that I present what people give me in the most effective way possible. Second, I never let on how much I have to do with some people’s content to make it look good. And third, I make sure that I regularly acknowledge the effort and timely delivery from team members (cc’ing their manager). It is amazing how much people want to provide content to me once they are complimented on their contribution or praised in the presence of their manager.