Thursday, September 18, 2014

Being Right Isn't Enough

As engineers we are often faced with a very common problem. How do we convince "business people" that we're right? It seems we're always at odds with each other, doesn't it? Us vs. them? Any avid reader of Dilbert will tell you that we engineers know what we’re talking about and, in fact, that’s why they hired us. So why won't these "business people" listen to us?

I'm going to let you in on a little secret… They do listen to us. They simply disagree with the position as we've presented it. Sure, all our facts may be correct. Sure, our opinions may be valid. But the conclusion, the call to action, doesn’t resonate. It's not that "they" are incompetent or malicious, it's simply that "we" (which includes both "us" and "them") haven't reached a mutually agreeable course of action. (Caveat: Ok, I'll concede that there are some people out there in positions of authority who are incompetent or malicious or who simply don't want to listen to you. There's not much you can do about those ones. The only advice I can offer in that case is to take your leave of the situation. Create an exit strategy, enact that strategy, and go find something else that doesn't endlessly frustrate you.)

So, if they're listening to us, why aren't they agreeing with us? How can we impress upon them the need to agree with us? Well, that depends on that call to action and where "they" see that action taking the team. If you're not familiar with Stephen Covey's Time Management Grid, you should be. (Not just because I'm going to be referencing it a lot here, but also because... well... you should be.) It's a simple grid with two axes, one for "urgency" and once for "importance." And the combinations of those axes result in four well defined quadrants:

Imagine for a moment that any given work item, anything you do as part of your job, falls into one of those four quadrants. For each item, where do you think it goes? Where do you want it to go? Which quadrant contains the things you want to work on? Which contains the things you want to avoid? The grid makes those distinctions pretty clear:
  • Quadrant 1, Manage: These are the things that need to happen, and they need to happen right now. Production systems have errors and downtime, and fixing them is an immediate need. There are emergencies to resolve, fires to put out, etc. This is where critical decisions need to be made and success needs to be reached. Of course, you don't want to always be here because it means you're always in a hurry, always pressured.
  • Quadrant 2, Focus: These are the things that need to happen, but not right away. Investments in the future of the company, improvements to prepare for long-term strategic goals, etc. This is where you want to spend your time. This is where you work on rewarding things without being yelled at and pressured to cut corners.
  • Quadrant 3, Avoid: These are things which need to be fixed right now, but shouldn't even be a problem in the first place. This is where you do not want to be. This is the quadrant of work where you're pressured for results on things nobody actually cares about.
  • Quadrant 4, Limit: This is a fun little quadrant of things you might like to do but which don't necessarily provide measurable value to the business. (Google made a fortune off of this quadrant by encouraging employees to create their own projects, just FYI.) You want to spend some time here, but not a whole lot. Too much time here means nobody's doing anything important to the business.
Now let's think back to that problem of trying to convince "them" that you are "right." How does this grid help us? Well, now that you know where your work items belong on this grid, try also to imagine where your proposed work items belong. That thing you're trying to convince management to invest in... Where does it fit on the grid? And where do "they" think it fits? Step outside of the debate with "them" for a moment and imagine where on this grid you think they are, and where on this grid they think you are. Clearly you both want to be in Quadrant 2 (Focus). But neither of you thinks the other person is there. So how do you convince them that you are in Quadrant 2?
Tailor your position, and your call to action, based on the axis of movement from where they think you are to where they want you to be.
Let's take a classic example. You're working at a company with an established production system. As an engineer, you see all the problems. The code is a mess, the dependencies are unmanaged, support is difficult and there's too much of it... Technical debt is piling up ever higher. But the thing is, the system works. The business is making money. So, as often happens in these situations, there's no incentive from "them" to invest in improvements to a system that already does what they need it to do. "If it ain't broke, don’t fix it."

But you're the lead software engineer. You're the guy they hired for the specific purpose of ensuring this system continues to work and can continue to meet changing business needs. So why aren't they listening to you when you explain the things that need to be fixed? Because they see you in the wrong quadrant...

You think they're in Quadrant 1, only seeing the immediate concerns and waiting for something to "become a problem" before they solve it. They think you're in Quadrant 4, trying to convince the company to invest in something that is neither urgent nor important. How do you fix that?

Consider how these debates often play out. You talk about time tables, about how things are going to fail if we don't act soon. You're appealing to urgency in this argument. But if they think you're in Quadrant 4, where does an appeal to urgency make it look like you're going?

In that case it's pretty clear why they're against the idea. They see you as moving into the very quadrant where nobody should ever be. The argument they might present in response is to stress how your goals don't necessarily align with the business. How you're not seeing the big picture. What does that look like?

Clearly that's equally distasteful to you. You see them as moving into the very quadrant where nobody should ever be. The debates aren't reaching a middle ground because both sides are moving along different axes, appealing to entirely different measures of the decision. Assuming that you can't change their position, you need to instead present your position in a way which aligns with theirs.

In the example we've been discussing, this means appealing to importance rather than urgency. You and I both know that these fixes to the system need to happen soon, perhaps even now. But that's not what's being discussed. So table the discussion on urgency until another time. If the decision-maker you're trying to convince is varying along the axis of importance, then focus on that axis. Appeal to the importance. In this example that could be a matter of discussing the operational costs of support, or discussing the strategic goals of the system (scaling, additional features, etc.) and what it would take to achieve those goals. What might a goal cost in the current system? What might it cost with some fixes in place first? What might those fixes cost? And so on.

Since "they" think that "they" are already in Quadrant 2, if "you" can convince "them" that you are driving toward Quadrant 2 then that puts you both on common ground. That drives toward a mutually agreeable course of action. Tailor your position to the direction they want you to move, not the direction you think they're moving. This helps bridge that gap from "us vs. them" to "us and them" which is a much more productive team dynamic.