Thursday, April 15, 2010

Influencing Your Way to Agile

I recently presented at the Emerging Technologies for the Enterprise conference in Philadelphia.

Speaking at ETE

It was a fantastic conference, as always with the folks from Chariot Solutions. I had a great crowd even though I was in the last slot of the last day of the conference. For all of you that couldn't make it (and those of you who did and wanted my slides) I thought I'd write up my thoughts on influencing your way to Agile.

I love Philly ETE because of the community and the amazing speakers and all of the focus on new technologies, emerging practices and practical tips and tools—things that are relevant to the work that I do everyday that I can take back with me.

But how often do you really bring those ideas back to your organization and change things?

I'm not saying it doesn't happen—I have brought back some valuable tips and definitely picked up new technologies, but especially the ideas that involve changing the behavior, actions, opinions of others—maybe Uncle Bob sufficiently shamed you into deciding that you and your team needs to actually practice TDD—so many ideas like that fizzle out before they ever have a chance to become reality.

What inspired me to study influence is the patterns that I saw over and over again: You're in a company on a team. You have your job; you depend on some people and some people depend on you. There are some norms for how things get done, for how people interact and communicate. As an individual and an organization you sometimes fail and sometimes succeed at what you do. Love it or hate it but if you care at all about what you do and your organization (or the people in it) you see some room for improvement. So, you come up with an idea.

The goal is usually to take your idea and get to the point where you can give it a try so that you have a shot at turning it in to reality and making a positive change in your world.

But how do you get there? For most non trivial changes you have to get some others on board before you can turn your great idea in to reality. So between the time that you have a great idea and you give it a try you have to go and talk to them, convince them to go along with it.

What really bothers me is all too often you get stuck at these in between points before you even to give it a try. And what happens is that over time when you hear "no" often enough you often start to give up before you even try.

So many ideas, so much energy gets lost (wasted) because we don't know how to communicate our ideas and we don't have the relationships and skills we need in order to be able to successfully influence each other when a great idea does come along.

I know I titled my talk “influencing your way to agile” but I’m not really here to talk about agile. Agile is a mindset--a conscious decision to accept change and adapt the way we work to accommodate constantly changing requirements. In my mind a commitment to agile is also a commitment to discipline and continuous improvement. I’m not strict in my observance of agile practices--Agile techniques are just more tools in my toolbox, but I do buy into the core principles of transparency, collaboration, responsiveness, getting things done. They just seem like good ideas.

Most developers that I meet are either on a team that is trying to "be more agile" because of some pain or frustration with their current way of working or is already "sort of agile" and dealing with the same or new pains and frustrations with the way they work.

Regardless, I don't know if I've ever met anyone that has said "yeah, everything about the way my project/organization/community is perfect--nothing needs to change“

It doesn't matter if you are a developer or a team leader or an executive--I hear the same sort of thing--everyone has frustrations, sees opportunities for improvement, occasionally comes up with new ideas. Everyone is dealing with change and the behavior of others.

Behaviors are very hard to change. One way of looking at it is that there are two ways to do it and they are by influence or by authority.

If you are the CEO of your company (and a totalitarian one at that) then you can use your authority to force people to change their behavior. Most of us don’t have that much authority over others, which means we have to use our influence.

You are going to need to learn how to exercise the influence you have and grow your influence (by building the working trust relationships and trust between you and the people you work with) in order to make change happen.

Some people are really good at influence. The rest of us have to practice.

So I’ve come up with 6 steps to help you practice, or exercise your influence. These are meant to be applicable to exercising influence over your teammates, boss, customers, anyone. These steps are very simple and I can’t provide you with any sort of guarantee, but I have found that when you are just starting to become aware of the positive influence you can have on the people around you and you want to get better at it it helps to have steps to follow.

Step 0: Generate ideas

You can't influence change if you have no idea what you want to see happen. This is step 0 because most of the time you already have an idea before you come to me to talk about how to learn to exercise your positive influence on others.

Step 1: Pick an idea and take time to think about it

It is important that you are sure that the idea you decide to try to introduce into your organization is a good one. Also, you want to be sure that this is an idea that will benefit the whole organization--not just you or your team. If you are just out to make your own life easier you are going to have a harder time finding allies for your cause eventually. If you do believe that this change would benefit your organization as a whole then you also need to spend time practicing explaining that benefit--make sure you can clearly articulate what exactly you propose and how it specifically meets a need or contributes toward a goal for the organization, elevator-pitch style.

Also consider if this is the right time to introduce a new idea and make a big change. I tend to get excited about making improvements and want to start everything right now. The right idea at the wrong time is not the right idea, though, and that can be hard to see, especially if this improvement is one you have been searching and thirsting for for a long time.

Step 2: Find potential allies

Just like with collecting ideas you will need to collect allies. Who can help you make the change you are proposing? Who absolutely has to be involved? In other words, who do you need to influence?

Pick one person to start with.

Step 3: Get to know your potential ally

If you have a good working relationship with someone and you trust one another then it is relatively easy to convince them to help you try out a new idea if you really believe in its value.

If you don’t have a good working relationship with the person you decide you need to influence be ready to sell your idea—think of what they value, what they need—how would this change benefit them and their current situation. Some people can be convinced purely by explaining the benefit to the organization, but I don’t count on that. If the change that you are proposing doesn't benefit them directly sometimes you can offer them something unrelated instead. Is there a project they are working on that you can help with?

Communication styles are extremely important and we are often unconscious of the effects that our differing styles have on our ability to collaborate. Some people are very formal and others are very casual. Some people want all of the facts and they want them in writing, others would be annoyed by that. Some people want to hear an idea only after it has been fully flushed out, others prefer to hear about an idea at the very earliest stage (later is boring). It is important not to ignore the other person's preferred communication style and it often helps to adapt your style to match theirs while you are asking them to do you a favor.

Once you have thought about all of these things you are ready to go ask!

Step 3.5: Assume they are your ally

I caution everyone to skip this step at your own peril. When you don't have a good working relationship with someone (or especially when you have an antagonistic relationship) it is all too easy to walk up to them with your shoulders tensed and eyebrows lowered like you are ready for a fight. You may even have your come backs or defenses prepared ahead of time. If you do this be prepared to fail at influencing them to join your cause.

Push everything out of your mind except that which has to do with how your interests overlap and your future successes can reinforce one another. Picture them as an ally and then walk in to their office.

Step 4: Ask for it

Make your proposal, ask for their help. Show how it benefits them (and the organization). Listen to what they say in response.

Step 5: Rinse and repeat

The more successful exchanges you make the stronger your relationships become and the easier it is to get a yes.

Dealing with "No!"

If you go around asking people to change their behavior you are going to hear a lot of "No"s. It is important to listen to what they say when they say no, and how they said it and then to reflect on what happened. Was there a problem with the idea or with the relationship or the presentation of the idea? Often a combination of factors. It is important to reflect on the many refusals that you will receive to either come up with a better idea, or a better way to present the idea or to find relationships that need more work and ways to improve those relationships.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:
  • Did you present the idea in a way that made sense to them and their situation?
  • Do you really understand their context?
  • Was it a good idea?
  • Was it the wrong time?
  • Do they trust you?
  • Did they really say no?
That last one is interesting because sometimes they don't really say no, but they also don't say exactly what you were hoping. Often times instead of no they want to discuss your idea, criticizing it or questioning some of your assumptions--listen and learn what you can. A good critic can be one of your best allies sometimes.

But sometimes it is the relationship that is the problem and the other person is never going to say yes to your idea, no matter how good or beneficial to them. You might think the other person is just stubborn/incompetent/uncaring/evil. When they say no it feels personal. The resistance/misunderstanding is often a result of the positions that we hold in our organizations. When I start to view someone as hostle and irrational when they reject my ideas I like to ask myself this question: If you swapped jobs/roles how would the dynamic be different? Would you feel the same way they do? Would you act the same? Be honest.

Often if I can get out from under my anger and frustration I can see how the position the other person is in leads them to react to my idea in a certain way and that I would probably do the same in their position.

In my talk I went through some of the common patterns of system-related tensions and how to address them. Rather than go through them again I am going to just say that you need to read Seeing Systems: Unlocking the Mysteries of Organizational Life by Barry Oshry.

If you are having a hard time forming productive relationships across all layers you are going to have a hard time influencing change. Seeing these patterns helps you empathize, so that you can approach your colleague as an ally instead of an enemy. Seeing is not going to solve all of your problems, but it certainly helps.

Let's get practical

Okay, I want to give some practical tips for influencing change. The first three are general things that you muse do to succeed at influencing your organization:

  • Care deeply
  • Be positive
  • Stay focused

If you don't care deeply about the success of your whole organization and all of the people in it you are going to have a hard time mustering the energy to make real change happen.

Be positive to attract followers. Cynicism wears you down eventually and people are already going to be tired from all the work it takes to change our behavior for the better.

Stay focused: it is easy to get distracted at work because there are always a million things to do, fires to put out. Change is very slow and influence is very messy and if you lose focus on what you are trying to accomplish, well, you are not going to succeed. It isn't easy, but I find that it helps to have some key allies in play to help me stay focused. If you set up a regular meeting with an ally or mentor to discuss your progress, for example, it is a little easier stay focused week after week.

Don't be afraid to ask for help like that. Another common urge when you are championing a new idea or big change is to want to hold on to it like it is your baby. The thing about organizational change is that it needs to grow to be successful and that means you need to let it get too big to fit in your hands alone--ask for help. Getting help also means that you will be less likely to burn out and lose focus before you have reached your goal.

One good way to attract followers without having to hunt them down is to make your efforts visible. In Scrum we like to have information radiators in the team space so that anyone, any teammate or stakeholder or anyone, can walk by and see what is going on--what is done, what hasn't been started yet, what has been sitting in the in progress pile for a week (stuck?). This is also a good idea for your change projects. If you try out your new ideas and have a little success and want to try it on a larger scale, make that visible however you can.

Speaking of success, don't forget to celebrate even the smallest of victories. Cookies, a lap around the building, high five, happy dance, however you and your allies prefer to celebrate, take time to do so. And say thank you!

Whew, I have several more practical tips that I covered at ETE, but rather than write them all out here I'm going to say that instead you should go read Fearless Change: Patterns for Introducing New Ideas by Mary Lynn Manns and Linda Rising. This book is chock-full of simple and widely used tactics for introducing change. All of my favorite tools were in there as well as many that I hadn't tried before that I wish I had known of sooner.

Finally, be patient. I can't stress enough how SLOW change is. Some days it feels like we must be moving backwards we are moving so slow, but you have to keep working and stay positive and put on your long-range goggles before you give up and decide that it is hopeless.

And be flexible too, as the momentum for your change grows and you attract followers to your cause and learn about your organization your idea is going to change. Let it change; learn as you go. "Power is the ability to act as if you can make happen whatever it is you want to make happen, knowing that you cannot, and being willing to work with whatever does happen" -Barry Oshry (Seeing Systems)

Thanks for reading so long! Let me know how you are doing. What ideas are you trying to introduce? What are your favorite tools for introducing change?

1 comment:

  1. Audrey,

    I was fortunate enough to hear this talk in Philadelphia. What a treat! Your energy and enthusiasm were inspiring! You have stumbled across many of the patterns that Mary Lynn and I have documented. You're a natural :-)! There's no silver bullet that will make change easy and, as you wisely point out, it takes time, a long time. But the good news is--that gives you time to learn--about your new idea, about your organization, about yourself. That's the best way to make it happen! Thanks for sharing your ideas.

    Linda Rising