Managing by Influence

I used the following text as a base for my presentation at the recent ProductCamp in Chicago on June 19. The presentation is available here.

In the knowledge economy, many of us are responsible for one or several  products, services, projects or initiatives. We are held accountable to get things done, but we often do not have the resources or authority to overcome many of the obstacles thrown our way. No one reports to us. Resources get cut, coworkers have different agendas, and our management is not able to prioritize projects. While you try to resolve these issues, the competition is eating your lunch, and your customers take your product for granted. Nonetheless we must pursue our objective no matter what.

So how does one ensure that things get done under these circumstances? One way I found is to lead other by influence. Driving the though process will enlist your team to do what’s right. Give your team members a purpose and they will follow you. Usually people will support your efforts if you bring sense and logic to them.

How do you get there? I found, based on my readings and experience that just a few principles can make a difference. Pardon me if I am sometimes stating the obvious, but these principles deserve to be presented in detail.

First you need to have a vision of where your initiative is going. Having a well thought-out, step-by-step understanding of where things are and where they need to be and when is absolutely key to influence your team. The beautiful thing is that you don’t need to have that vision right off the bat. The simple fact for being the engine to drive the development of that vision will help you federate the energies towards a common goal.

Another aspect is to consider is the tapes which are running inside your team member’s head. Because of previous past experiences, positives or negatives, your team member hears voices or “tapes” that will affect your initiative, positively or negatively: “this will never work”, “we’ve tried this before” , “this is a fad, if I wait long enough, it will go away”. These are examples of tapes that are hard-wired in people’s mind. As a leader, it is very important that you are aware of these tapes.  Please read Robert Cialdini “Influence, Science and Practice” for more on this topic. Direct contact with team members, ability to listen with an open mind, understanding what will trigger behavioral changes, constant and consistent communication of why and how the team will succeed can go a long way to fight negative attitudes.

Once you have the vision and understand the emotional landscape of your team and your management, you must have the ability to convince.  Tons of books and articles have been written on this very topic but the document I like the best because of its impact is a 1995 article from HBR by Jay Conger, a professor at USC. In his article, he list what works and what doesn’t.  Let me start with what doesn’t because I am guilty of having practiced a lot of what he does not recommend:

1)      Make a case with an upfront hard sell. The “John Wayne” method gives your adversaries the ammunition they need to bring you down.

2)      Resisting compromise:  showing no flexibility to address other constituents’ concerns is a sure way to see your ideas die.

3)      Believing that the secret of persuasion lies in presenting great arguments. It matters, but it is not enough.

4)      Assuming that persuasion is a one shot effort.  Convincing a team is a process, not a one-time event.

Now let’s see what works according to Jay Conger’s research:

–          You must first establish credibility. Things will get a lot easier if you have the credibility to bring the team to a win. That is not an easy thing. Not too many individuals who have been in the same organization for a long time have a pristine track record. New employees , hired to provide leadership are given the benefit of the doubt  for a while, but need to be able to swim in the cold water after a few weeks. If you miss some credibility, you can substitute some of it by ensuring that you have visible management support. Fact and figures will also help you enlist the critical minds.

–          Frame for common ground. Even if your credibility is high, your position must still appeal strongly to the people you are trying to convince. What will be of interest to the individuals who are key to your success?

–          Provide evidence. Still according to Jay Conger, raw evidence won’t do. You need to mix your data with metaphors, examples or analogies to make your position come alive.

–          Connect emotionally. While we all agree that emotion plays an important part in influencing and convincing, it is how we calibrate the emotional component that matters. Too little of it and you do not connect. Too much of it and people will think you are weak. It is repeated contact with your team that will give you a sense of the right mixture. This may sound calculated or not spontaneous, but it not about faking your emotion. It is about channeling them in a way that is useful to your initiative.

The task is much harder for individuals working out of a remote office with no visual cues on a geographically distributed team’s body language. You don’t know if they are listening to you, and they don’t know if you hear them. Any one with hints on how to deal with this situation is welcomed to provide input.

In conclusion, Influence is not a given, but there are many tools and techniques one can use to increase it. It is a complex tool, but that’s why it is so interesting to be a product manager.