I was recently on a Boy Scout camping trip with my son, and while the boys we preparing for the day’s activities, the adults were around the campfire and as is often the case, the topic turned to what was going on at each of our jobs. One of the parents brought up his company’s transition to an agile approach to software development, and shared a fairly typical story with the group about grandiose announcements, cadres of bright-eyed consultants armed with profuse quantities of PowerPoint slides, and grand promises about work becoming easier, faster, and “more agile.”
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“Everyone knows it’s really about cost cutting and doing more with less” he said, and the group nodded solemnly in agreement as others shared similar stories about initiatives that were pitched with high-minded goals that were quickly ignored as yet another way to reduce headcount.
Like most things in life, the truth of how most tech leaders pitch initiatives to their teams is usually somewhere between active deception and radical transparency. As a general rule however, basic human nature applies, and we focus on the benefits more than the drawbacks. There’s nothing wrong with highlighting the good that’s expected to come from major IT efforts, but your staff are smart enough to assume that any transformational effort is going to require some degree of pain, no matter how legitimately rosy the end state may be. Not acknowledging this fact allows your staff to create a story about the darker side of your initiatives, and in most cases, it will be far more dramatic than reality.
Write the story on your initiative lest it be done for you
There’s been an increasing emphasis on storytelling in the corporate environment over the past several years, and it’s of little surprise. As human beings, we’re naturally wired to understand, and communicate via storytelling. The most basic storytelling arc consists of an introduction, a problem, and ultimately, a resolution. Most of our childhood stories are some variation of the classic “Hero slaying the dragon and living happily ever after,” and this basic mechanic is just as effective for conveying the good (and bad) of your initiatives.
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There’s likely a metaphorical dragon that your project is trying to slay, and in many cases, it might even present an extensional threat to your organization. Rather than allowing consultants to run amok in PowerPoint talking about agility, transformation, and best practices, articulate how your competitions’ renewed focus is beating you in your core business, or how steady growth in sales has been derailed due to systems failures. Your team is the knight in shining armor, with the new tools of your initiative their shining sword.
Like any tale, there will be loss and hardship along the way, but it should be commiserate with the metaphorical dragon that’s threatening your company. Be honest about the magnitude of the problem, and the cost that must be borne to slay the dragon. If you’re unable to balance the two to the point that you feel uncomfortable sharing with your team, perhaps it’s time to reevaluate your initiative and its objectives.
Share individual successes
With a compelling story about your initiative that intuitively connects the outcome and objectives with the cost, you’ve won half the battle. To continue gaining support for your initiative, find individuals that have personally benefited from the initiative. Ideally, some of those individuals will have been skeptical of the initiative and its impact. Cautious optimism from a skeptic is usually more powerful than leadership congratulating itself. You’ve likely seen individual testimonials for everything from books to workout programs, and you can use this same technique to gain support and create transparency for your technology initiatives.
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Share the good, and the occasional bad
Rarely does anything complex go exactly according to plan, and when you as a leader share only the good news, people naturally grow skeptical that you’re withholding information. Along with sharing your successes, highlight what you’ve learned and how it impacts the future of the initiative.
If, like the campfire story above, you’re hearing staff deride an initiative as “all about cost-cutting,” acknowledge that concern and how some elements of the effort are indeed about cost-cutting, but link that to allowing your company to redirect cash to a new product development effort that’s required to beat back competitors, or whatever dragons that cost-cutting is intended to slay.
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Even more powerful is sharing missteps along the way. No one expects perfection, and simply acknowledging that your effort is imperfect, yet evolving as it progresses can do wonders for creating an atmosphere of honesty and transparency around your initiative.
While considerations around storytelling and sharing progress may seem like tasks left to some poor sod that found him or herself stuck on the change management team, these are exactly the tasks that good leaders focus on. A banal email from the consultants will never have as much power as a leader sharing the good and bad, and communicating honestly and sincerely with his or her team. What might seem like fluff is an effort that can make or break an initiative.