When it comes to the future of work, a lot of nonsense gets espoused. Some of this is wishful thinking, some is utopian thinking and much is just a lack of accountability for any consequences. Each of these are warning signals to sceptical senior managers who have been brought up in a much harsher and more pragmatic world. They are looking for answers to specific questions about the performance and risk impact of any change in work that is advocated. This post will examine those questions and how to answer them.
How to Answer
We are going to start with how to answer the questions because it is a common area of shortcoming when passionate advocates engage senior management. Remember that senior managers are time poor, distracted by big business issues and are used to driving an accountability and performance culture to achieve strategic outcomes. They are looking for answers that reassure them that you are thinking the same way. The last thing they need is another waffling wasteful distracting project.
Be detailed: As a change advocate, we can become enamoured with our own enthusiasm for change. We are focused on the big picture and the glorious future ahead. In this context, everyone else’s concerns can feel like minor issues. The key point to remember is that those minor issues are the big barriers to executive participation and enthusiastic support. If any executive doesn’t understand what you are talking about or how to address a small issue, it is the issue.
Avoid Abstraction: Advocates of new practices love capitalised nouns. It’s hard to argue with, understand and to measure Employee engagement, Innovation, Collaboration, Autonomy, Purpose, and other popular capitalised nouns. Executives are trained to pick apart these abstractions with questions designed to get to the so what. That’s not a problem. That is their job and they will rightly remain sceptical until you can do so too.
Discuss Value: Value is the question most people want to avoid. It is far easier to advocate for a motherhood capitalised noun than start a discussion of value with someone trained to think like an accountant. Value can be indirect and diffuse. The fact that value is hard to discuss doesn’t excuse anyone from the discussion. In fact, it makes that conversation more important, because that which is hard to see is more likely to be overlooked.
Align to Strategy: If you are going to lose an argument, at least lose on the right side of history. Your organisation has put time and effort into choosing its strategy. Make sure you understand it and are helping execute that strategy. If you can show alignment to strategy, there is a good chance you can find the specific contributions of value for the practices you are advocating. Strategy is after all just a specific way you have chosen to create value for customers and the organisation. If you want to argue for priority in the organisation, its employees and their time, the only way to do so is by contributing to strategy.
Be Balanced: Senior executives are trained to think in priority and risk-reward. If you don’t discuss the risks, issues or investment, then they will be forced to go looking for it. Remember your project is only the centre of the universe for you. Be prepared to discuss the connection of your project to other areas of the business. It is always better that you bring these issues to table and have prepared the mitigations. As the person best placed to know your assessment of risks and issues is more likely to be measured.
What to Answer
Here are the key questions to consider:
- Audience: Who Does this Impact? Who will be involved?
- Value: What are the specific benefits to our strategy?
- Measurement: How will I know it is working? What does success look like and where will I see it? When will it happen?
- Risks: What could go wrong? What are the mitigants?
- Costs: What will it cost?
- Priority: Why should I prioritise this now?
- Execution: How do we do this? Who? How? What? When? How do I know that we have done what we need to do?
Prepare answers to these questions with as much specificity, detail and balance as you can. Be prepared to debate and discuss these answers. You want senior executives engaged in developing their own understanding. That happens when they ask questions and debate you. If they are silent, they are disengaged and you are losing. When you leave the room, you will discover nothing happens.
Senior executives aren’t aliens. They are human and supremely rational. If you reassure there concerns and demonstrate the right benefits, then you will discover they are enthusisatic supporters. If you can demonstrate the path forward to success, they will make it happen. New work practices can address some of the hardest and most significant strategic issues for senior executives and organisations, but they won’t do so unless you get through these conversations with support.