Cool stuff: Different Work | Your Big Adventure | The Fish Pond
This is a guest post by Geoff Crane from Papercut Edge blog. You can find out more about Geoff at the end of this article. The links to books in this article are affiliate links.
This article begins with a bedtime story that Derek Huether over at The Critical Path read to his son: “Green Eggs and Ham” by Dr. Seuss. In this story, an anonymous character refuses to accept the green eggs and ham proffered by “Sam”, despite Sam’s insistence that he will like them. After much arguing and refuting, the anonymous character finally agrees to try them…and it turns out he absolutely loves them.
In his musing, Derek likened green eggs and ham to ideas and opportunities which others so often resist, possibly because of their novelty. Samad Aidane of the Guerrilla Project Management Podcast seized the notion, and added that as project managers, it’s incumbent upon us to understand others’ reluctance and step into their shoes. He calls compassion the “killer app” for project managers.
Derek suggests we need to be prepared to accept new ideas; Samad insists we need to understand people when they don’t want to accept new ideas. I agree with both of them.
At their core, ideas are disruptive. They challenge the status quo. As human beings, we tend to like the status quo, thank you very much. It’s comfortable. Familiar.
As such, the likelihood that an idea will create discord among those who receive it is high. There will be those who latch onto it, and think it to be great; but for every enthusiast, we should expect at least one detractor. When we communicate the idea, we won’t always know which response to expect. So how do we leverage such tools as compassion and empathy in the face of distrust?
For this I think we need to step all the way back to the initial development of an idea.
Both Dean Roger Martin, author of The Opposable Mind and Bill Moggridge, author of Designing Interactions conducted a series of interviews with especially innovative industry leaders for their respective books. Each developed their own complementary understanding of the kind of thinking necessary to create ideas.
Dean Martin writes that
“successful leaders have the predisposition and the capacity to hold two diametrically opposing ideas in their heads. And then, without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other, they’re able to produce a synthesis that is superior to either opposing idea. Integrative thinking [is Dean Martin's] term for this process–or more precisely this discipline of consideration and synthesis–that is the hallmark of exceptional businesses and the people who run them.”
With this type of thinking, a project manager has a tremendous power. On complex projects where multiple stakeholders, vendors, team members and end user organizations frequently confound one another with opposing demands, the project manager can bypass conventional decision making methods and make the quantum leaps necessary to develop real solutions.
However, here is where we come to the crux of the dilemma. The project manager may have the ability to develop an idea that resolves conflict, but they still need to communicate that idea. Without a history among project constituents, which project managers seldom have, getting others’ buy-in will be difficult without some kind of credibility.
Moggridge introduces the concept of “T-shaped people”. He suggests that the vertical part of the letter ‘T’ represents the depth of knowledge in a given domain, while the horizontal part of the ‘T’ represents breadth. A T-shaped person, in a project context, would have the capacity to acquire very in-depth, detailed knowledge of one or more project areas, while never losing sight of the breadth of the high level project dimensions. In this case, a project manager would be able to understand the implications of their idea on every level of the project. In terms of projecting credibility, this would certainly help. The PM could address each persons’ concerns in their language, using detailed examples of how the idea could benefit them.
So a project manager that is capable of reconciling opposing demands into a new solution can speak across the depth and breadth of the impacts his or her new idea may have, may have the potential clout to sway people on their projects to their way of thinking. But potential isn’t actual. It’s not enough to “logic” people over. For people to endorse an idea that pulls them away from their comfort zone, they have to want it. I do not believe that “wanting” comes from the domain level…wants are more fundamental than that. If you want to reach someone and turn them into a supporter, I believe you need to dig deep and hit them at their core…their values…their passion. When you strike a chord at that level, it’s very likely you will create a convert. This is where I believe Samad‘s contention of compassion will see the greatest value.
Oh, but there’s so many different types of people, aren’t there? What we see as compassion may be perceived as insincerity or even sarcasm. It’s difficult to know how to hit someone at a core level if we’ve only just met them. What if there were some way we could quickly gauge someone’s high level motivations during conversation, and communicate our idea in core terms designed to reach them deep?
Steve Simmons, an executive of a large global bank, is a friend of mine who introduced me to the folks over at Manager Tools. These guys have developed an approach to measuring workplace behaviour that is worth some serious consideration. Based on a questionnaire, they measure test-takers on four dimensions: Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Conscientiousness (DiSC). Across these dimensions, Manager Tools have identified 15 discrete patterns of behaviour. Behind each pattern is a summary of motivations and work habits that can be easily recognized once you know what to look for.
I don’t advocate that you have every project member take a personality test; I don’t even think it’s necessary. On studying the different behaviour patterns, I find I’ve begun to subconsciously apply a DiSC profile to the people I interact with every day. To test it, I sometimes ask questions of people I trust, to ask them, based on behaviours I observe, if their motivations match those in the corresponding DiSC profile. I’ve been surprised by the profiles’ accuracy.
While hardly foolproof, here is a tool that can help the adept project manager quickly gauge the motivations behind behaviour they witness, and frame an idea in terms that their counterparty will embrace. What I like about this is, it’s a concrete method of counterbalancing inherent “human” tools we already possess with a tested barometer of behaviour. Combined with the foregoing, we have a means of passing both the head check and the gut check of our project members, with a little practice.
So to recap, how can you conceive an idea, communicate it in terms that will encourage others’ buy-in and inspire action?
1) Embrace conflicting demands. Harmonize both demands into a solution, rather than opting for one or the other, thus leaving someone out in the cold. This way, you’ll set yourself up for maximum support. Read The Opposable Mind to learn more about this way of thinking.
2) Don’t be afraid to dive deep into the meat of a particular subject matter before you communicate your solution, but if you do, never lose sight of the big picture. Designing Interactions will provide more insight into this thought pattern.
3) As you begin to communicate your solution, watch the people you’re speaking with and look for signals that speak to what’s fundamentally important to them. Frame your solution in those terms. Take a look at Manager Tools for a potential barometer in this regard.
Ultimately, of course, it will all come down to your own individual passion and drive that gets others’ to embrace your ideas, but hopefully the foregoing provides some concrete steps on how to refine your approach. Coming back to the man who began this article, Dr. Seuss once said, “you have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself, any direction you choose.”
About the author
Geoff Crane owns Papercut Project Monitoring where he works as a project coach to project managers and executives. He specializes in leveraging soft skills to achieve specific and predictable results. Geoff believes effective use of these skills creates a heightened sense of ownership among team members, faster buy-in from project stakeholders, and an accelerated pace to project execution.