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Transformation by Story: A Technical Application

Friday, October 18, 2013   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Mark A. Stedman, Central Florida Chapter
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 Mark A. Stedman

Remember the story about the computer user who called Dell to complain that her cup holder wasn’t working? Or the computer that wouldn’t start, despite pushing on the pedal? Of course, it turns out person number one was putting his coffee cup on the sliding tray for the CD-ROM drive. Person number two was stepping on the mouse like it was a sewing-machine pedal. And my personal favorite, the confused person who couldn’t find the "Any Key”: You know – press "Any Key” to continue.

These stories have been around since before I entered the world of Information Technology twenty years ago, and they continue to amuse and elicit groans from anyone who has made a career of supporting technical systems and their end-users. And while they are amusing, as a technical leader, you may wish to consider the messaging behind these stories, and the power that repeated stories can have on the effectiveness of your team. Washington College professor Michael Harvey, as cited by Hackman and Johnson explains "Leaders frame stories and events to help [followers] understand the world, themselves, and other groups, as well as to identify or solve problems.”

After a five year recess to marketing and fundraising, I recently returned to the world of technology as a full-timer. I was asked to assume executive leadership of a team of nine individuals. The team was facing some significant challenges and had recently experienced a fairly large project failure, which were some of the reasons for appointing new leadership. As I assessed the team’s strengths and weaknesses, it became apparent that the limitations faced were not primarily in technical competence. Rather, the primary limitations seemed to be cultural: Team members did not always understand the world, themselves, and other groups, and they needed help solving problems.

The Tech-Virus – Not Prevented by Anti-Virus Software

You know the Tech-Virus when you see it. Formerly happy, well-meaning employees become cynical, cranky, irritable, and avoided by others. Symptoms may include excessive sighing, sarcasm, and eye-rolling. Those infected with the virus may prefer the company of their computer systems to the company of humans. The Tech Virus can infect anyone who has worked late nights, with unrealistic deadlines, limited resources, and impossible expectations. It is highly contagious and is transmitted verbally from person to person by working in close proximity under difficult conditions. Non-infected humans detest interacting with Tech-Virus infected people because they feel foolish and incompetent.

Because the transmission path for the Tech-Virus is verbal, prevention and cure are possible by application of new interpretations of stories and experiences. The cup-holder story is funny because we all know someone who is capable of making that telephone call. The standard interpretation of that story is "Those people out there are stupid!” But Hackman and Johnson go on to state that leaders "act as sensemakers, helping followers interpret or make sense of events or conditions.” As the leader of a team of people, sometimes infected with the Tech-Virus, it’s my job – and yours – to offer a different interpretation the cup-holder story.

Imagine how your team would respond if you said "What a creative use for a CD-ROM drive. Although it’s unconventional, I can see why someone might think that. I’m glad we were able to improve that person’s understanding of their tools.” That sounds a little "Pollyanna”, but instead of allowing the story to continue to reinforce the assumed superiority of the technical team, it allows the uninformed end-user to save face, while also elevating the value of helping to resolve the situation.

The Case of the Two Databases

Recently, I attended a meeting with our Application Development Team and the Vice President of Marketing. In that meeting, the Marketing VP mentioned the idea of integrating two disconnected databases that both manage customer information. The developers in the room immediately began to explain why it was impossible, while the marketing people tried to explain the importance of the idea.

The meeting became a bit agitated and afterwards, the application developers were frustrated with the marketing team, and the marketing team was frustrated with the application developers. The story from the development team sounded something like "They don’t know what they are asking for. There’s three-quarters of a million account records in one database, and several hundred thousand accounts in the other. Many of those names overlap and there’s no easy way to match them up. We’ll have to create an entire system to try to get the names in sync otherwise we could create several hundred thousand duplicate records. We’ve got too much to do already.” As chief sensemaker, I began to unpack each of those statements with my team.

They don’t know what they’re asking for.

This is a true statement: When the VP of Marketing asks to integrate two databases, he doesn’t understand the technical challenges. He does, however, understand the value of bringing two lists of customers together. It creates new potential customers. It brings additional information about existing customers into light, allowing for more enhanced understanding and better relationships. It will ultimately increase the resources available to the organization, thereby strengthening the business. The VP of Marketing is good at his job – not ours. And we are good at our job, not his. By working together, we create greater solutions than working individually.

We’ll have to create an entire system to get the names in sync.

Great news! Everyone will remain employed this year due to overwhelming amounts of work in the queue. Part of the story I tell my team regularly is that the more complicated, difficult, and complex the work is, the safer their job is. If our internal customers aren’t asking for things that push the limits of what can be done, it might not be long before they decide there’s no reason to pay an internal team of technical experts. If the work was simple, the customers would do it themselves.

I also like to reinforce the joy and pleasure that comes from solving a particularly thorny problem. The sense of accomplishment is in direct proportion to the effort expended. Bringing a difficult solution to fruition is not only satisfying, but also tends to yield the highest results for the business.

We’ve got too much to do for them already.

There are, perhaps, situations where an internal customer might not realize how many programming items they have already requested. In our case, however, our internal customers are well aware of their task queue. The Marketing VP was not asking for this project to be initiated immediately – he was asking that it be considered in the future. When he was asked about the priority, he readily admitted that it was a long-term improvement priority, which meant it was not intended to displace any of the immediate needs already in development. Removing the assumption that the customer is being difficult creates the space for your team to pause before responding and gives an opportunity to ask a simple question like "When would you like this done?”

This situation could easily become a great story to tell around drinks with other technical people. "You wouldn’t believe what our marketing department wants. Bring a million customer records from two different databases together! What are they thinking?” This kind of story carries multiple messages, just like the cup-holder story. The assumptions and values implicit within this story, if left unchecked, reinforce the idea of tech-team superiority and the inferiority of all others. But addressing this situation and replacing the implicit messages with explicitly positive and respectful interpretations will impact the culture of your team.

Noted leadership expert, Richard Daft, makes the point that "Leaders must be communication champions who inspire and unite people around a common sense of purpose and identity.” A story that leaves the internal customer looking incompetent, demanding, and difficult creates a value assumption that can cause poor service to be perpetuated. Instead, a story that makes the customer look competent and reasonable creates a culture of respect that yields great returns.

Action Points

As you consider concrete ways to implement these ideas with your team, remember Hackman and Johnson’s statement: Leaders frame stories and events to help followers understand the world, themselves, and other groups, as well as to identify or solve problems. Your task is to frame stories and events, and to help your employees understand the world, themselves, other groups, and to identify and solve problems.

Framing Stories and Events

Listen to your team. Over time, you will hear the stories that are part of the culture. Your task will be to reframe those stories positively. In my case, I have a Values Statement for our team that includes two points: We will make positive statements about challenging situations and we will tell positive stories about difficult people. There are many steps between a values statement and changing your team’s culture, but as a leader, guiding your people toward your values will enforce the goals.

Help Your Employees Understand the World

Nobody possesses complete understanding of the world, but as a leader, it’s likely that you are aware of things that your team is not. As a leader rises in authority, he or she becomes privy to more information and often a better view of the entire organizational landscape. Where appropriate, don’t keep secrets. As much as possible, give your team the broader view. Why is a particular internal-customer requesting an odd project? Because they are working on a new initiative. Why are they being demanding? Because their revenue targets were recently increased. At minimum, a better understanding of the world will give your employees some comfort. At best, it will help them provide better service to your customers.

Help Your Employees Understand Themselves

This is an area where it can be a great help to work outside tech for a while. Having been a customer for about five years, I have a very different perspective than the tech-insiders. I’m able to provide insights about how various behaviors and communications are received by non-technical users. It’s easier to diagnose the Tech-Virus when you have been on the receiving end of its effects.

It’s also helpful to be a bit of an arm-chair psychologist. Learn some basic tools like the Meyer’s Briggs Temperament Inventory, or at least become familiar with ideas like introversion and extraversion, as these concepts will help your team understand some of their internal and external friction points.

Help Your Employees Understand Other Groups

As an organizational leader, consider spending a significant amount of time with your customers, whether internal or external. As you get to know your customers well, you will be able to help your employees understand not just their business needs but also their motivations and personalities. I was able to stand between the Application Development Team and the Marketing Team because I had been on both sides of the fence. I had relationships with all parties in the disagreement and I understand that they all want to do their best. The limitations were primarily personality and communication types. Take the time to get to know your customers.

Identify and Solve Problems

If your career progresses into management and leadership, it’s likely that your day-to-day responsibility for technical production will reduce, instead replaced by broader areas of focus. The identification and solving of problems may no longer be focused on what is accomplished by coding, configuring, building, and deploying. You will focus your energy on building relationships with customers, employees, and other constituents. Your most profitable use of time and energy will be to work on your soft-skills.

Conclusion

As a leader, communication is one of the most important tools at your disposal. You can use your communication to impact the communication of your employees, as well, and by doing so, you can affect culture change. That culture change can move your team away from a Tech-Virus infected group that nobody wants to interact with, to a group who values the opportunity to serve their fellow coworkers and in doing so, enhance the future for all.


References

Daft, Richard L. (2008). The Leadership Experience, 4th ed. Mason, OH: South-Western Publishing.

Hackman, M. & Johnson, C. (2013). Leadership: a communication perspective. Long Grove, Ill: Waveland Press.


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