Friday, April 19, 2013

Managing Through Influence

I can accomplish very little on my own. So I put a lot of time into influencing other people. This can be especially difficult in a large company, where I need to influence people above me in the hierarchy, people in other departments, and often people I've never even met. Here are some ways I manage through influence, with special thanks to Creative Good Council 1 for their help expanding and fleshing out the list. 

Think of this as 20 tips for developing the art of influence.

As I walk through the list, I'm assuming you have a "target"--a specific individual whose behavior you want to change. I'll group the tips into 3 principles:
  1. Work the relationships
  2. Motivate and inspire
  3. Be practical

Work the Relationships

I can sometimes influence someone with whom I do not have a strong relationship, but it's a steep hill to climb. I always start by understanding, building, and leveraging relationships.

  • Align around something shared. Find something in common with your target. It could be anything from shared values (e.g., we both care deeply about the future of our organization), shared goals (e.g., we both want to meet the June 1stdeadline), or even something completely unrelated to work (e.g., we both love Louis Armstrong's early recordings). The more specific you can get, the better.
  • Understand the web of relationships. Everyone is influenced by someone else. Find out who your target trusts, obeys, follows, or listens to. If you can't directly influence your partner, find the path between you and your target. If your target is Alice, and Alice reports to Bernice, you need to influence Bernice. Maybe you have no influence over Bernice, but Bernice trusts Carlos, and Carlos has great respect for you. Once you've figured out this path of influence, you can get Carlos to talk to Bernice to give Alice an assignment.
  • Identify the saboteurs; defuse the bombs. Take some time to think through who may oppose your work and how they might wreak havoc. Is there someone who will tell your target not to listen to you? Is there someone in a position to make your target's efforts ineffectual? If you don't know, ask someone who does know. Then make an explicit plan for how to neutralize the negative impact. By far the most powerful way to do this is to convert your detractor into your champion. Another tried and true method is to keep the detractor busy with something else--find a way to get them focused on some work that keeps them out of your way. This doesn't have to be cynical or Machiavellian--many people can serve their customers and company better by staying focused on things they can actually accomplish rather than sabotaging the work you're trying to accomplish.
  • Know your target's social and professional style. Are they extroverted or introverted? How do they respond to data? Do they like to chat by the water cooler, or are they all-business all the time? Do they tend to make snap decisions or do they like to mull things over?The more you understand your target's personal story the better--their background, culture, training, career path, etc.
  • Be in it for the long haul. Deep relationships take time. Start your relationships before you need them. Build your karma balance by helping people when you don't need them to help you back. Get out more. Invite people to lunch. Find someone to introduce you. Learn to schmooze. The larger and deeper your network, the more likely you'll already have a good relationship with either the person you want to influence or with someone they trust. Then keep coming back. When you're trying to influence someone, work up to your pitch, and then check in over time: "What can I do to help?" "How's it going with the idea we talked about?" "What advice do you have for me about where we go with this next?"
  • Talk face-to-face, at least once, as early as possible. Yes, relationships can develop virtually. But they develop faster and more deeply when you see each other in the same room, shake hands, read each other's body language, see each other's workplace, and chit chat about fishing or Seinfeld or the weather or air travel or bagels for just a few minutes. Technologically-mediated conversations, whether by phone, email, or video call, are way better than no interaction, very helpful for keeping the work going, and terribly inferior for establishing and building relationships.
  • Find out what your target hates doing or is scared of, and do some of their work for them. This may mean doing some grungy work you dislike in order to achieve a larger group. But often it means you do work you love that's that others find difficult or distateful. Does your target hate making budgets? Draft a budget for their review. Are they afraid to challenge the status quo by suggesting a change? Maybe you can give them political cover by publishing the recommendation yourself. My personal favorite is to offer to draft a charter for a new initiative or workgroup. When I've already thought things through, I can put a charter together pretty quickly, saving time for the person whose support I want, and enabling me to frame the conversation in terms that support my own goals.

Motivate and Inspire

If my target is motivated and inspired, they still may not do what I want them to do. But if they are not motivated or inspired, my influence campaign is doomed to fail.

  • Understand what's important to your target, including rewards/incentives. Before I approach someone new to try to influence them, I always try to find others who know them and ask, "What does he care about?"
  • Expose your target to customers in evocative ways. I'm assuming that you want to do something that will improve the lives of your customers. For most people in most situations, the best way to influence your target to help you do this will be to put customers in front of your target in meaningful ways that evoke empathy for the customer. There are many, many effective ways to do this, e.g.,
  • Invite your target to view user research like usability testing, focus groups, ethnography, etc., 
  • tell stories about customers, 
  • help your target experience the front lines of customer interactions--on the phone, at the store, on the street, 
  • share data about your customers
  • help your target walk in the customer's shoes for an hour or a day, so they can experience things from the perspective of a customer
  • Align your work with larger organizational themes and priorities. There are two parts to this--conceptual and linguistic. You need to start by really understanding the connection between what you're trying to do and the strategies, initiatives, and goals that your target cares about. And then you need to use the specific words and phrases that will trigger your target to see that connection.
  • Know your target's numbers. If your target cares about data, you need to know which data they care about and the relationship between that data and the thing you want them to do. Be sure you understand the data well enough. An insightful, nuanced analysis can make all the difference to a data-oriented target, but a shallow misinterpretation of your target's favorite data will almost always backfire.
  • Tell stories. Every human being responds to a story well told, even the most analytical, numbers-driven bureaucrat. Good stories transport the listener to a place where they are more likely to open their mind to new ideas, make connections, and solve problems creatively. Build your story-telling skills and your repertoire of stories.
  • Let your target get the credit. Harry Truman said, "It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit." So make your boss look good. Help that other department build their reputation. Give the professional climber another feather for her cap. Along the way they'll help you get what you're after.
  • Say, "Yes, if...."  When someone asks you for something, say, "yes, I'll do that, if you will do this other thing for me." When someone thanks him, Guy Kawasaki likes to say, "I know you'd do the same for me." These kinds of interactions make your colleagues more likely to want to help you.

Be Practical

Relationships, motivation, inspiration--those are very squishy, amorphous areas. They're essential, but I'll still fail if I skip some of the basic, practical tactics below.

  • Get on good terms with administrative staff. Three good reasons to nurture friendly, respectful relationships with admins: (1) It's basic human decency (which admins don't always receive from their co-workers), (2) You'll meet some really interesting and fascinating people who have life stories and insights that you won't get from those higher in the pecking order, and (3) A pissed-off admin can block your progress in a hundred small but powerful ways, but an admin who likes you will squeeze you onto their boss's calendar even when it's booked solid.
  • Choose the right time and place. The day you come up with a great new idea, or the first time you see your target after you have that great idea, may be a horrible time to approach your target. You absolutely *must* discern the context from your target's perspective. If they are angry about the idiot who just wasted their time with a ludicrous idea, or if they are late for their daughter's choir performance, or if they are surrounded by a crowd of people waiting to harass them, now isn't a good time to lay out your grand plan. If they found out this morning about a 10% budget cut, this afternoon is a bad time to ask for new funding. Don't push a new idea to a teacher on the first day of school, a new product to a sales person just before a big pitch to a new client, or a risky new PR campaign to a manager dealing with fallout from bad press.
  • Do your homework. Chances are good that your target knows their area a lot better than you do. If there's something really wrong in their area, they probably know that already. If all of their competitors are doing it a better way, they probably already know that. You'll just irritate them by making a shallow or naive proposal about something you don't know half as well as they do. So before you launch into a big new idea with your target, find out what they already know, what they've considered, what they've tried, what constraints they're working under. Only then can you have any confidence that you may be offering them something they will value.
  • Craft a sound bite. Your target won't do what you want them to do if they don't understand what you're talking about. Very early on in your influence campaign, sit down and create a clear, concise summary of what you want and why. Make it short enough and memorable enough that others can repeat it and spread the message for you when you're not in the room.
  • Ask for what you want. Don't make people guess about what you're after. Give potential champions assignments. Executives are chronically filled to the brim with projects, ideas, goals, meetings, initiatives, issues, next steps, strategies, and everything else. If you can convince them to support you, they will thank you for giving them a specific assignmen: "I need you to talk to the VP and ask her to fund a new position." "I'm hoping you'll put this on the agenda for the next board meeting." "You could really help this effort by publicly framing this as an opportunity rather than a risk."
  • Make sure your idea is worthy. You could do everything above and still fail if you're trying to influence a smart, experienced person to support a stupid idea or implement a lousy plan. Whoever you're trying to influence, at whatever level they may be in the hierarchy, treat their time and attention as sacred. Dnt tell them things they already know. Don't make them think of something you could have thought of yourself. Learn to listen; listen to learn.

There we have it--20 techniques for influencing people in a large organization. I'd love to hear which of these feel most helpful, additional tips & tricks, and I'd especially love to hear stories about failures and successes in the art of influence.

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