Thursday, May 08, 2008

How do I convince my company/client/boss/team/co-worker to do X?

This topic comes up every now and then, but over the last couple of months I have had a lot of conversations with a bunch of folks about "How do I convince my company/client/boss/team/co-worker to do X?" or some variation of that. Since I spend a lot of my professional life trying to influence others and because I am mostly successful in doing so, I sometimes take it for granted that it is just common-sense. People seem to respond positively to my advice so I thought I would share it.

1. Credibility. First and foremost, if you want to influence people you have to be credible. If you are not viewed by others as being credible then it is going to be difficult or impossible to influence others. It doesn't matter whether you believe that you are credible. Credible people are the first ones to admit when they don't know something, so the first lesson is to admit that you can't know everything. If you don't know something then keep your mouth shut. The second lesson is that it can take years to gain credibility and an instant to lose it. Before opening your mouth think about whether there is a great risk of losing credibility and if so then keep your mouth shut.

2. Execution. It is very important that others view you as someone who successfully executes. You can have many flaws, but others are more tolerant of the flaws if you successfully execute. Successful execution helps to build credibility. Also, successful execution is often what grants you entry into a conversation that provides an opportunity to influence others. Don't confuse successful execution with showing up for work and not getting fired. Understanding your role is very important. There are plenty of smart people who lose focus and think they are helping by pointing out the flaws in others. Unless it is your role to do so, and it rarely is, then stay focused on your role. If you don't like your role then change it, but once you are in a role then you need to play the role the best you can.

3. Listening. Often the most influential people are the ones who say the least. If you don't listen then you can't understand others. If you don't understand others then how can you possibly respond to their questions or issues? Even if you know the other person is wrong it is important to let them have their say and it is important for you to listen to what they are saying. Listening can provide you with important information needed for negotiation.

4. Facts. It is very important to distinguish between facts and opinions when trying to influence others. If you are offering an opinion and someone else has another opinion then be tolerant of that opinion. If someone disagrees with your opinion then acknowledge the difference in opinion, but don't fight about it. Healthy debate at the appropriate times is OK, but constant debate about everything can lead to you not being invited into key discussions. When pushing facts (a) make sure your facts are correct, (b) offer supporting data if available, and (c) don't exaggerate. If someone disagrees with facts that you present to them then don't get dragged into a never-ending debate. State the facts, counter the other person's objections once, and end down the conversation. In time, you will often be proven correct.

5. Importance. Don't win the battles, but lose the war. You have a limited opportunity to influence others. You need to understand which battles are worth fighting and which ones aren't. First, if you focus on the most important issues and leave the rest to others then you are going to find yourself being more influential than them. Second, you need to let others participate in the process. You don't want to be viewed as being intolerant, inflexible, or dictatorial. Letting others win the minor things, especially the things that are just opinions of little consequence, can lead to you being more influential. Third, people need to learn and sometimes you learn through making mistakes. Letting people learn through mistakes on the minor things is better than the alternative.

6. Negotiation. Everything is a negotiation. Many non-influential people will convince themselves that they don't have to sell or compromise. They are dead wrong. If you understand that everything is a negotiation then you can come prepared for a negotiation. It has been my experience that most people come into a discussion unprepared for any kind of negotiation. The person who is most prepared is often the most influential.

7. Religion. Avoid religious discussions. It is very difficult to change a zealot's opinions. Zealots often self-destruct and they like to drag people down with them.

8. Permission. Don't ask for permission unless you want to be told no. It is important to understand that people initially react to change negatively. This is human nature. If you want to introduce a new tool or process then just do it. It is better to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission. It is easier to introduce tools or process changes for yourself than it is for an entire team/organization. Become successful by yourself instead of trying to influence the team/organization to change. Over time, if the tool or process makes you significantly more successful than others then it will become apparent. Successful results provide a much stronger negotiating position. Success is also a stronger magnet than failure. People will gravitate towards success.

9. Demeanor. You will be judged by your demeanor. If you come across as lacking confidence or experience then you are going have a more difficult time influencing others. No matter how anxious, angry, depressed, etc. you are you need to hide this from others.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Edward Tufte, "Presenting Data and Information"

I attended Edward Tufte's "Presenting Data and Information" course this week. This course was on my To-Do list for too long, so I finally decided to attend. It helps that the course was held very close to home and only lasts one day. The course fee includes Tufte's four books: "The Visual Display of Quantitative Information", "Envisioning Information", "Visual Explanations", and "Beautiful Evidence". Overall, it was a good course and I recommend it to others.

The course topics included:
  • fundamental strategies of analytic design
  • evaluating evidence used in presentations
  • statistical data: tables, graphs, and semi-graphics
  • business, scientific, research, and financial presentations
  • complexity and clarity
  • effective presentations: on paper and in person
  • use of PowerPoint, video, overheads, and handouts
  • multi-media, internet, and websites
  • credibility of presentations
  • animation and scientific visualizations
  • design of computer interfaces and manuals

This is a non-technical course that provides valuable guidance to anyone working in a technical job. I found The (Six) Fundamental Principles of Analytical Design in "Beautiful Evidence" to be immediately helpful to some projects that I am working on. Once you read and understand the principles it just makes sense.