Sometimes in life and work, we become convinced of a need to change before most of those around us. Either we read the tea leaves, or we see the bigger picture, or some how we just were able to jump through the problem straight to a potential solution. Maybe we have worked through all the analysis in our mind and have a detailed idea that could be a slam dunk, a quick win, or a major turn-around for the organization. The problem is simply that everyone else is stuck in the status quo. Maybe they don’t see the problem clearly yet, maybe they just are not willing give what change requires – or maybe they just see the obstacles to change as being unavoidable or worse, unforeseeable. Maybe they see the risk of the change as many times larger than the risk embedded in the problem.
You have tried telling them. You had tried to convince others that your idea is good, that it will work. You have “told them until you are blue in the face.” Somehow, you end up coming off as unhelpful. People generally get defensive when you try to tell them about the problem, you can’t even get the solution on the table.
Perhaps the issue is not that your analysis is weak, or your solution is not worthy, but only that it is not shared. How do you get others to share your perspective, and to help champion your ideas? How do you get them to understand that the status quo (which they have been working hard to build and keep going) is going to turn out to be insufficient to achieve the larger vision? How do you get them to “disinvest” themselves in the way things are, so that they can invest in a new idea? How do you get them to be open to your ideas, instead of getting defensive?
What you need to do is just to drive a little wedge into their thinking, so that they can start to see what you are talking about. You have been “hammering” them and have failed to break down their defenses. Lets try a different tactic. Why not use questions to invite them to discover what you have already seen? Questions are always more powerful than answers, because they can invite others to create their own answers, and for them, their answers are always better.
What I want to share are 5 approaches using questions that can help open the mind of someone you are trying to influence. I will talk about the situation when the approach might be helpful, and provide an example.
Scenario for examples – You are convinced that the current process for documenting software development activity is too costly and was designed to support audit, rather than to make the software development process more effective. You have told this to “Julie”, the director of application development, and she simply throws her hands in the air and complains bitterly that the auditors will screw us if we don’t follow the doc procedures to the letter. She is clearly stuck in the status quo. So how can you you get her to see that there might be opportunities to improve the situation.
The Round-About Approaches
Approach 1 – Engagement
Sometimes, especially when we are pointing out that something is not “doing the job”, we need to assess the person we are talking to, as we are seeking her help in fixing the problem. We are talking to a leader who has some influence or decision rights over the situation, but we are not sure whether she is “in it” for the right reasons.
So you can ask Julie – Why did you take the app dev director job? – Remember that in this conversation, you don’t want to come off as if you are “challenging” her. You are trying to get into her core value system. You want to understand what she believes is important about her job. There are probably more subtle ways to word the question, but that is not the point. The point is to begin to align your influence with something that she ALREADY believes is part of her mission; something that she is already energized about.
As long as she doesn’t give a disengaged answer – like “I thought it would look good on a resume” – you can work with whatever she gives you. If she says something about software quality, then you can align your pitch to a quality improvement vector. If she says something about lower costs or faster time to market, then you can align your pitch with those things. But if she gives you a disengaged answer, then you know you are making the pitch to the wrong person.
Approach 2 – Mission
Sometimes especially when we see that something may be distracting us from the broader mission or focus – we need to help the person we are talking to discover that the status quo is some how out of alignment with the mission as we see it. We are talking to a leader who has some influence or decision rights over the situation, but we are not sure whether she is thinking about the big picture or is just trying to keep things going.
So you can ask Julie – What is the core mission of the application development group? – Focusing on the bigger mission, you are inviting her to talk about her larger goals and her value proposition to the organization. You want to understand what she sees as her major contribution. You can probably find this information on her departments website, but that isn’t the point. The tactic of the question is to get her “monologuing”. Get her to talk about the positive things that she is in charge of accomplishing. The point of this question is to begin to align your idea with the core of her greater mission, so that she sees it as a means to an end that is very important to her (her bonus).
As long as her mission isn’t complete garbage – with no concrete measurable goals that you can use to generate traction for your idea, you are off and running. She may talk about building a mature software development capability, or delivering software capabilities and products that meet business goals. You can show how your idea makes sense as a part of the broader mission. Like the engagement question, if she doesn’t have a solid mission, you are talking to the wrong person.
The Direct Approaches
Approach 3 – Obstacles
Sometimes, we need to help the person we are talking to discover that the obstacles to change are not as daunting or insurmountable as they imagine them to be. We are talking to a leader who has some influence or decision rights over the situation, but we sense that she feels that the change we are envisioning will have tremendous cost and for her that may mean personal risk if she backs the change.
So you can ask Julie – What is preventing you from reducing the cost of documenting software projects? or What are some of the obstacles preventing us from making the documentation process work FOR software development teams? – You are asking her to tell you what is preventing her from doing something good. This approach is more direct, in that you are actually embedding your idea into the question. In getting her to talk about the problems or obstacles to implementing your idea, you are looking for ways to remove or shrink the obstacles. In asking her to tell you what is getting in the way, you are actually spinning her on to your side of the discussion.
By telling you what she considers to be the obstacles in the way of your idea, she is forced to consider the merit of the idea, without becoming defensive. You are showing “respect” because you appear to be assuming that she has darned good reasons for not doing your idea. While there may be some difficult obstacles, it is also possible that she may see you as an ally who she can trust to work on this without getting her own hands dirty. She may re-evaluate the idea and realize that the obstacles are not as big as the benefit.
Approach 4 – Motivators
Sometimes, we need to help the person we are talking to see that the risk of doing nothing is greater than the risk of doing the thing we are proposing.We are talking to a leader who has some influence or decision rights over the situation, but we sense that she doesn’t perceive the longer term or broader risk that we are concerned about as being more urgent or intense than the risks that are mitigated through the status quo.
So you can ask Julie – What would need to change before we would be forced to reduce the cost of documenting software projects? – You are asking her to consider what external forces or circumstances would make this issue or problem important enough that she would try to overcome the obstacles. Again with this approach you are embedding your idea into the question. In getting her to talk about other factors which would shift the balance of value towards your idea, you are giving her an opportunity to evaluate your idea even if she is not forced to act on it.
By evaluating the forces that would make your idea more important, she is forced to consider the merit of the idea, and how she might be more proactive – taking this action before she was forced. You are showing her that you have thought about this from her position, and that you have her interests at heart. She may realize that if she is not forced, she may have time to be more careful and do a better job – if she waits until forced, she may have a gun to her head, and not get the best result.
Approach 5 – Least Change
Sometimes what leaders get stuck on is simply the idea that everything has to change at once. That we have to do this HUGE change, all in one shot. This may be a second phase of influence, after they have already acknowledged that your ideas have merit. We want her to discover that the change can be broken into smaller increments and introduced over time, and that even small changes can be valuable. We are talking to a leader who has some influence or decision rights over the situation, but we sense that she is resistant to the change because of its scope.
So you can ask Julie – What is the smallest change we could make that would reduce the cost of documenting our software development projects? – You are asking her to consider that your idea can be done incrementally. Some leaders are predisposed to seeing things as big bang kinds of projects. They default to contemplating a small number of big change projects and then BAU (business as usual) for a long time. In this question, you are positing a different approach to getting some value. She can dip her toe in the water and see if it is comfortable before doing the cannonball off the high dive. More importantly, there is an opportunity to brain storm with her team, to discover how many small changes could be made “independently” that would actually help her teams.
By evaluating an incremental approach to implementation, she is forced to consider that she can avoid some obstacles and costs, and get some positive results quickly. Perhaps she can generate some positive results to bring her manager in order to get his support for the larger more difficult phases. You are bringing her a way to reduce the personal risk she might have to take to initiate this change. She may realize that she can do a little before committing to the larger change, and get some credit for being aggressive and managing risk at the same time.
Questions are more powerful than answers, because when people answer, they own their own words. In answering a question we are forced to think about the idea. Once I have thought about it, I find that I am more aware of that idea. I find that the idea continues to occupy my thoughts. Whereas if you tell me a great idea, I may dismiss the idea because it didn’t originate in my thinking process. If you can get me thinking about your idea, it quickly becomes my idea and I don’t even remember how it came to me.
The core of influence is getting others who are in positions of greater influence or power to own and even champion your ideas. The hardest part is just getting them to hear your ideas and evaluate them without becoming defensive. Using questions to plant ideas is a key skill to master and a means to becoming a trusted advisor.