Open Source

Influence decisions with help from Johnny Carson

When recommending a strategy, product, or new technology for your organization, the direct approach might not always be the best way. If you properly frame the argument before you make it, getting people to do what you want is a whole lot easier.

When recommending a strategy, product, or new technology for your organization, the direct approach might not always be the best way. If you properly frame the argument before you make it, getting people to do what you want is a whole lot easier.

-------------------------------

Creating genuinely funny comedy routines must certainly be an exhausting exercise. There's no way you can do it on a regular basis and make each one a laugh riot. When the the King of Late Night TV Johnny Carson used to do a skit and it fell flat, he'd almost always looked rather crestfallen, shrug, turn to Ed McMahon and say "Well, if you buy the premise, you buy the bit."

Few truer words have been spoken. What's equally true is that you can take that same philosophy and use it in your IT career as well. It may sound funny, but it works.

Being an agent of change

On a computer if you want to get something done your way, you just do it. You write the program, compile it, and execute it. There's no justifications, business cases, or glad handing to be done. In an IT career, however, it's never that simple.

Unless you're the CEO and president of an organization that you own majority rights in, it doesn't matter what kind of an IT leader you are -- if you want to get your way, you're going to have to exercise influence on others. This gets into that greasy, grimy, dark area of office politics that is pretty unpleasurable to a lot of us IT folk. Sometimes it's more fun to rebuild a server rack than it is to build a consensus. However, if you want to get decisions made, and made the way you want, you sometimes have to get down in the dirt.

Although a direct attitude works with machines, it doesn't work with people. Let's say you think it's a good idea to go with Linux in your organization rather than sticking with Microsoft. One way to present the idea is just bringing it up in a one-on-one conversation or a meeting:

"I've done a lot of research lately on Linux and Microsoft products. Microsoft software has been causing us nothing but problems, so we should move to Linux. It's free. It doesn't have all the security problems. We don't have to worry about spyware and viruses. We don't have to pay all those licensing fees. Microsoft stuff is buggy anyway, and we are always having to load patches. We could save a lot of time and money just by using Linux and open source stuff. It makes perfectly logical sense."

Logic here is the problem. There's no context for the argument or reason why you're bringing it up. You state the reasons why Linux might make more sense than Microsoft in general, but there's no point of reference made to the organization. Additionally, you fire all your ammo at once, hoping the sheer weight of evidence is clear and convincing. Only an idiot could disagree.

The problem is the solution you're attacking may have been approved or suggested by the idiot you're talking to.

Instead, a better approach is to find out the needs of the organization or particular minor problems the person you need to influence is having and then tailor your argument to them. Frame the debate. Sell the premise, and then sell the bit.

"Budget cuts are going to hit us pretty hard this quarter, aren't they? I was thinking, if we deployed Linux on a couple of the new servers we are getting, we could save $X.  Then we can reallocate that money elsewhere. Maybe buy something else in addition. I can probably get you a cost workup pretty easily."

Here you've sold the premise. Budgets are tight. We need to save. We can do so by deploying Linux. We'll save $X. You'll look great, and we might be able to buy something else too!

A political case study

If you think such an approach doesn't work, look beyond IT into the rough-and-tumble world of politics. Looking at a specific issue -- health care -- you can see how the concept of selling the premise and selling the bit works. (Note: Before the flamewars start, I'm not advocating any positions here; I'm just taking note of how the debate has changed.)

The concept of government-involved health care has been around as a platform issue for the Democratic party for decades. The idea is that health care is a right. People deserve care that is preferably free to them and paid for from taxpayer dollars.  As a basic human right, people who have nothing should have the same access to doctors, hospitals, and medicines as billionaires. Because doctors and hospitals are profit-driven, greedy, no-good SOBs, they should be taxed into the ground and forced to provide their services for whatever the government thinks they deserve to be paid. People can go for free, and the rich and corporations are taxed into the ground to pay for it. (OK, I did hyperbolize a bit.)

The traditional response of the Republican party has been "Let them eat cake." The government has no business sticking its nose into health care. The market and insurance companies will sort out prices and access. We don't give people equal access to something even more necessary to life like food, so why should we have healthcare that's interfered with by government.

[What we have, of course, is the worst of all worlds -- a system stuck somewhere in the middle, but there's that digression I promised not to go into.]

Now, back on topic, look in this presidential election year how the debate has been framed. The premise is "The healthcare system in America is broken. The president will have to do something about it." If you're an advocate of goverment health care, you've already won the debate. Framed in such terms, it's next to impossible to debate that a presidential candidate can't do anything else other than to come forward with a health care plan of his own. And seeing as how "nothing" isn't a "plan." Then in order to do something, the answer will most likely involve the government.

So, the advocate of government-involved health care wins the day no matter who gets elected (although maybe not as complete a victory as desired depending on who wins). Just the same way, in a properly framed Linux argument, the Linux proponent wins, even if it's only a server here and there to start, and not a complete rip and replace.

The bottom line for IT leaders

As IT professionals, we can sometimes have a tendency to think that the direct approach is the best approach, especially in an argument or debate. We like to think that the weight of evidence, facts, and logic should win the day. A better way to influence people into deciding things the way you want is to carefully couch the debate in such terms where the solution is obvious and where facts, evidence, and logic aren't necessary.

Remember what Johnny used to say "If you buy the premise, you buy the bit."

6 comments
rodneyk
rodneyk

What seemed to be a logical premise--shooting from the hip may not persuade your listner to agree with you was sideswiped by your hot air on the health care debate. Maybe if you followed your own advice--don't shoot (your own passions)from loose lips during a practical discussion, your premise would be better supported.

santeewelding
santeewelding

"Hey, guys: lookee here. It's the end of a string. Look what happens when I pull. "Oh-oh."

tinyang73
tinyang73

The concept you are passing on in this article is fantastic! As I read this article, I learned a bit more about how the 'uber geek' brain type works, and it also helped me understand a bit more about myself. It also helped me understand something about the author, he is a republican absolutely terrible at trying to keep bias out of his articles, at least in this case he was.

John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro
John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro

To be as Fair And Balanced as I could with the example, but it didn't work out so well. Indeed I am a registered Republican, although I probably lean more Libertarian than anything else.

brent.harmon
brent.harmon

I've used a variation of this approach in "manipulating" decisions in our group. I structure my argument using the Johnny Carson principle above, presenting all of the facts, and then let the important person make the actual decision. For some veeps and the like, making the decision is where the power comes from. My job is to simply "guide" the executive to the "right" decision by using facts framed in the proper context (which is to get what I want out of the deal). Overall, it is largely successful, unless working with a person who is manipulative in his/her own right.

John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro
John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro

That was always one of my favorite lines from Johnny Carson. The only way a skit or comedy routine is funny, is if you can accept what's going on around it to set it up. As I mention in Decision Central: http://blogs.techrepublic.com.com/decisioncentral/?p=120 this same idea works with just about any discussion or debate you have. If you frame the debate properly going in, you can have decisions come out on the other end just the way you want them to be. It's not always easy, but it seems to work. What kinds of Office Politics Jujitsu like that do you employ to get decisions to turn out the way you want them to?

Editor's Picks