If at first you don’t succeed, consider a different approach

5447669-brick-wall

See this brick wall? It’s not a political statement. It’s a realistic view of what you can expect to see when you start your new job by telling your co-workers that everything they’ve built is crap, that their babies are ugly. But you’ve been hired to make a difference, and acknowledging that things are broken is the best way to do it fast, right?

Not necessarily.

You catch more flies with honey 

To illustrate my point, here’s a quick story most parents can relate to:

When my kids were younger, they loved mac and cheese (they were very unusual, I know). I wanted them to like sushi (I don’t remember why), and I knew I’d need to be both strategic and patient to make it happen. As many parents do, I started my kids with Japanese foods that looked familiar, like rice and noodles. After that, we worked our way to California rolls, tamago (sweet cooked eggs), and crunchy shrimp. Eventually, after many months, we were enjoying hirame and uni. This year, for my daughter’s birthday, we’re looking forward to making sushi as a family. Over time, I went from buying $4 pasta dinners to $25 sushi dinners. Mission accomplished! See how smart I am?

Your new co-workers are similar to my kids, at least in one respect: if you want to move them from mac and cheese to sushi, you’ll need to be strategic and patient. Chances are good they’ve been working in a particular way for a while, and most of them aren’t eager to change their thinking just because somebody new comes along – especially somebody who doesn’t know the history behind the decisions that were made. I know from experience that, if your new co-workers are talented and smart, the “brilliant new ideas” you share your first week on the job may well be ones they’ve had before, and there are reasons they haven’t been implemented. Assuming your new team hasn’t considered these things in the past can come across as condescending. You were hired to make the company better, but you can’t do that without respecting your co-workers enough to try and understand the decisions they made in the past – even the ones you think are wrong.

Of course, the fact that the team has tried similar approaches in the past doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try again. New people, org structures, and business challenges mean new opportunity, and it’d be crazy not to take another run at making things better. At a previous job, I gave all new employees a letter, effectively telling them not to be deterred by “we’ve already tried that” thinking, not to drink so much company Kool Aid that they lost their objectivity – and especially their passion. We need you to bring new ideas, new energy, and new approaches to your new job, the note said – that’s why we hired you.

A real world example

I used to work with a super-smart, extremely entrepreneurial technical architect. He was hired to help our technology team move forward, to create a compelling vision for the future, one that would support the growth of our business for years to come. I’ll call him Tom.

When Tom arrived at the company, he was eager to make a difference, fast. He assessed the situation and realized it was bleak. When Tom had his first meeting with the CTO (his boss), he gave it to him straight. Our technology was crap, antiquated and brittle. If we ever wanted to move forward, we’d have to start over from scratch. Tom had discussed this with key team members, and they hadn’t embraced his perspective. They needed to ship up or shape out. Time was a-wasting.

Tom was surprised when the CTO got defensive, but he shouldn’t have been. The CTO had been with the company for several years, which meant he’d contributed to the “crap” Tom was disparaging. Tom was calling the CTO’s baby ugly, and it didn’t go over well. But here’s the thing: Tom was right. The baby was ugly, and it needed parenting. What’s more, the company knew it – that’s why they hired him. Still, the medicine Tom was offering was bitter. If he was going to affect change, he’d need to find a way to help it go down.

That’s not what happened. Tom was a brilliant technologist, but he lacked the patience, savvy, and stamina to get the job done. His job wasn’t to be smarter than everyone else, or to be right. Tom’s job was to improve the company, and at that he failed miserably. He was gone in months.

simpsons-being-right-sucks

Try something different

Tom didn’t fail because he was honest and direct; lots of companies thrive on direct feedback and communication, and it can be a great way to get things done quickly. Tom failed because, when it was obvious his first approach wasn’t working, he refused – or was unable – to try something different.

Very few goals can be achieved in just one way. If I’d had the chance, I might have coached Tom to focus on his goal, and to engage the team in finding new ways to achieve it. If Tom saw the shortcomings in our technology within days, others on the team probably saw them too. And if the team was resistant to the idea of scrapping our technology and starting from scratch, maybe they had ideas of their own.

You can apply this kind of thinking to any problem, of course, not just technology. Even if you’ve been hired to be a “change agent,” your company is full of smart people who’ve made the best decisions they could over time. If they fail to see the genius of your first approach, try another.

It’s a marathon, not a race

The problem with trying lots of different things is this: it’s really hard, and it takes a long time.

Coming up with various approaches means having a great attitude in the face of failure, and showing up at work each day determined to make a difference. It means challenging yourself and your team, building trust, listening, and taking partners. It means creating presentations, collaborating, and jumping through hoops. It means being creative, resilient, humble, and optimistic. It means taking chances, being open to new ideas, and risking failure. This should sound hard, because it is.

All this takes time, of course, but it’s well worth the investment. The top-down approach may seem efficient, but when the team buys into the change you’re proposing, it’s much more likely to stick. If it takes six months to get where you need to be instead of three, that’s okay; you’re in it for the long haul. And when you get it right, the rewards can be amazing.

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6 thoughts on “If at first you don’t succeed, consider a different approach

  1. Grace

    Great post Lee. Knowing when to apply more pressure vs exercise understanding and empathy is an art that change agents must hone. Definitely not easy but always worth the time and effort in the end!

    Like

    Reply

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