Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Influence – Ready or Not

It seems that from time to time every position has some level of influence that you need to exert. As a project manager, department head or even a staff member, there are times when you need to influence others decisions because of your expertise, skills or experience. Then there are the true positions of influence where the only activity that you can do is change based on how you get others to change.

“It's never too late to learn, but sometimes too early”
  • Charlie Brown in PEANUTS by Charles M. Schulz.

The first position I ever had of true influence was with a fortune 500 company that had only just started getting into leveraging the Internet. This was indeed years ago, so please don’t think they were late in leveraging the Internet. Actually, they were about right on time with their “dabbling” and have continued to expand into B2B and B2C ever since.

I had been in technology for over 10 years, mostly as a developer and system administrator. I had also a number of projects that I had managed successfully that I was proud about. I thought what followed was going to be the natural progression of my career. I was surprised later to learn that I had a lot more to learn about projects and management.

I was hired to introduce new technologies into one of 23 of the divisions of the organization. Things like electronic scanning and OCR for Accounts Payable. Great project and things worked out well, but that’s for another time. The project and my background enticed the CIO to move me to the corporate level fairly quickly. I was the only other technology person at the corporate level as all other Directors and Managers actually reported to their local Operations Managers or Vice Presidents.

The first couple of months I spent my time going from location to location and learning the technology level of each. Sending back my two pager reports to the CIO on what I found. After a while I determined that there was a simple project we could accomplish that would make “Internet Technology” as real thing to those that I was listening and learning from. All that was needed was an web-based employee directory.

So with a little approved expense at the corporate level (very little), I set out to build the companies first in-house website. The Intranet was born within the company and this allowed me to have a live dog-and-pony” show for the road. It caught on very well and one day while visiting the corporate office I had a conversation with the Vice President of Marketing. The conversation was about the customers of the company and how the information about those customers could be tapped to generate new interest in the company. Having been to almost all of the individual divisions by then, I had learned that many had the basic information that the Vice President was looking for, but each division was its own island of knowledge. Not only were they technologically separated, but also very territorial about their information. I left things very negative with the VP as we could not get past some of these overreaching issues.

I really wish I had paid more attention to that conversation now that I look in hindsight. If I had it would have prepared me for what came next. Several months later on a late Friday as I arrived at my office from Logan airport (on the way home), the CIO called asking me to arrive in Chicago the following Monday. I said I would be there and asked was there anything that I need to prepare. ‘No, everything will be there when you arrive.”

I arrived bright and early on the red-eye in the Chicago office and was directed to a large conference room. As I walked in, there sitting was the 23 IT managers, their respective Plant Operations Managers/VPs, a few engineers that I knew in the organization, sales/engineers representatives from CISCO and Microsoft. I thought I was going to be treated to a relaxing day of product demonstrations and discussions on future ideas. Now I wish I had the extra 10 years of experience under my belt before I sat down in that room.

As the CIO welcomed everyone I thought that my day was indeed going to be just as I thought. Right after he said; “good morning” he jumped past the typical round-robin of introductions.

“Today we are going to determine how to migrate all our North America technology support centers into 3 main data centers.”

Dead silence in the room.

“Here you go Bill”….and he walked out of the room.

After the initial shock dimmed a little, I stood up and too a deep breath. Walked to the center of the room and looked directly at my old boss, the IT Manager of the plant I was based out of. I could see the visible signs of shock on his face and really knew this might not go well. The room started to fill with, as you would expect, with conversations about how ridicules this idea was and how much just thinking about it was going to upset plants ability to produce product. There were even the starts of shouting matches over which locations were going to be the new data centers.

Now I had at that time never had a position of politics. I never even entertained the idea that I would need such skills. I came from simple project management where most of the politics were monitored and managed by project sponsors. I was in over my head and there was no life ring in sight. So I did the only thing that I could think of, I ask a simple question.

Now over time I have attended many leadership training course, project management courses and management courses. The simple question that I asked I have found out was the only question that I could have asked and was actually the right questions. When the movie Apollo 13 came out, I learned that the question was the one that helped save not only the lives of the astronauts but also the whole space program.

“Does anyone have any ideas?”

That was it. Nothing like; “So who wants to go first?” Or “Who thinks this is not possible?” Not even the one question I found out was on everyone’s mind; “Who thinks that man is crazy?” That’s all I kept asking. When ever we came to an impasse or things started to get a little heated, I just interject with; “Let’s hear more ideas.”

It was long and hard, but a plan was created. I spent the next couple of weeks working with finance people and we figured out that the plan would save over a million dollars. We got the CIO’s approval and went to work. Indeed thanks to the cooperation and skilled people within the company the project was a success. It was those people that made the project successful. It felt like I was just along for the ride. Others became project managers of specific aspects and reported back only to their local IT Managers. There was no central reporting setup, so no high-level costs were developed and no projected savings documented.

I thought that was going to be the end of my career at the company. During the whole project I felt that I really did not do anything. Just sat around in meetings, listening to conversations and ideas; then every once in a while kick in my simple question. I went through six months of just asking people for their ideas and sharing them with others. I had no idea that was what the job was. I thought I was just wasting everyone’s time and sooner or later the CIO would get rid of me for wasting company’s time.

Shortly after that meeting I had several other run-ins like it with the CIO. I was sent to a location to redo all the telecommunications on the drop of a hat. I was sent to Microsoft to work out software and support agreements without first working with the 20+ IT managers on what was needed. As time wore on, I wore out. At the time I felt I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now I know that was wrong and I was in the right place at the right time.

Today, I could really enjoy that kind of position. Having much more understanding of how to communicate with others and stem new ideas from people would make me even more affective. Having asked just the right question might have been luck or my simple “Yankee” background did have positive results. I still will and have continued to ask the simple question over and over, but now I can carry things even further and to new heights because I am not so afraid to ask the question:

“Does anyone have any ideas?”

Notice: posts will have the highlights of projects that I have been apart of or have managed. Some of these examples have been fictionalized to make certain points. The examples are not a complete rendering of all the events of any project, example or actual event. Nor are they intended to be a factual accounting of events in a project, example or actual event. The examples of projects are to inspire and provoke thought on how anyone of us would have handled the situation. My intention is to highlight those "moments" where doing things one way or another might have changed the end of the story. This is done in an open and learning format where I hope we can all continue to learn together.

1 comment:

  1. Love the story, and agree wholeheartedly - it's the type of situation I love, too. Finding answers and solutions are not as difficult as many people think. After all, a problem exists because there is a solution. Our universe is just built that way.