Platform-neutral. Portable. Cloud. Generic. For decades, we’ve looked for ways to make IT simpler to deal with as the number of standards, platforms, devices and applications continue to multiply. And every time we reach a standard everyone seems to agree on (like TCP/IP) something comes along to change it (like v6).
Of course, history has shown us the advantages of fostering competition and avoiding monopolies. “One size fits all” invariably leaves some behind. Niches appear, and sometimes turn into whole new industries. In fact, that’s the way many new innovations emerge.
None of this makes it any easier to explain to bosses, executives, boards of directors or customers why one precise approach is significantly better than another when the details are the differentiators, and the apparently simpler alternative is problematic for some important but obscure reasons. I’m reminded of Jack Lemmon’s character Jack Godell at the end of the 1979 movie The China Syndrome. He was so busy trying to explain the details of what was going wrong with a nuclear reactor to live media that there was time enough to “neutralize” him before he started making sense to the reporters and the viewing public.
Clarifying the Details
While the consequences of failing to clarify the details are not normally lethal, it won’t help your organization, or your career, if the essentials can’t be grasped by the decision makers and influencers. Many organizations have found themselves on the prongs of a multiplatform strategy after failing to appreciate the detailed implications of trying to move off of one technology in which they were too deeply rooted, leading to a multiplication of technologies.
So, what strategies can be employed to simplify important details, communicate them clearly and compellingly, and then help decision makers properly weigh the options? The first answer is not to create a simplified, nebulous version that overlooks important details. This leads to unjustifiable decisions in the short term and further decisions that diverge from the functioning context over the longer term, resulting in many more technologies taking root as no one best option predominates. Instead, it’s important to teach yourself the details well enough that they are implicit in any distilled version of the truth that you offer to decision makers.
The second strategic behavior is to give those decision makers a clear picture of the likely outcomes of their potential decisions. Finally, communicate this in a manner that is compelling and relevant to an audience that may already have preconceived ideas that contradict it.
Feynman’s Four-Step Strategy
One proven summarization strategy is Nobel Physics Prize winner Richard Feynman’s four-step technique for teaching yourself a concept well enough to communicate it clearly and simply to others. Those steps are:
1. Pick a topic and start studying it. Write down everything you know about the topic on a notebook page, and add to that page every time you learn something new about it.
2. Pretend to teach your topic to an audience of people who don’t understand it and want to learn it—like a classroom. Make sure you're able to explain the topic in simple terms.
3. Go back to the books when you get stuck. The gaps in your knowledge should be obvious. Revisit problem areas until you can explain the topic fully.
4. Simplify and use analogies. Repeat the process while simplifying your language and connecting facts with analogies to help strengthen your understanding.
Once you’ve internalized what you’re trying to explain in a manner that is fully consistent with important details, the next step is to share it in a compelling manner that helps open minds to the realities being faced.
This can be a problem because people too easily get an idealized version of something in their heads and, having settled on that impression, are often unprepared to see important perspectives that can make or break a good decision. That includes you, by the way.
Prepare for the Worst, Hope for the Best
Instead of just painting a picture of success, also paint a picture of everything that can go wrong with the “right” decision, and how and why. Imagine that the strategy failed spectacularly and try to figure out the causes, identifying every possible factor that contributed to its failure. Make sure you’ve told the story compellingly so you can feel how awful things will be if they go wrong. Once you have a clear worst-case scenario that could legitimately happen, and why, then you can build forward to the idealized circumstance you expect the decision to achieve, while genuinely taking account of potential obstacles.
Gary Klein, the inventor of this technique, calls it a “premortem” and points out that we are often so invested in success that we are blind to the obstacles that can prevent it.
Of course, carefully reviewing the recommended course of action and underlying details doesn’t mean your audience will be open to accepting it. If you don’t address their underlying dispositions, they’ll still be hesitant, no matter how interestingly and logically you present a topic.
One article by Ozan Varol titled “Facts Don’t Change People’s Minds. Here’s What Does” has some instructive insights.
Varol points out that drowning people with irrefutable facts rarely has the desirable outcome because that’s not how the human mind normally works. We have a natural bias towards confirming what we already believe, so if your decision makers already believe that a particular course of action (such as moving to a new platform) is desirable, they will selectively ignore whatever you tell them that doesn’t support this.
Addressing Decision Makers
The first thing to do is avoid any perspective that implies that you’re right and your decision makers are wrong. Hopefully the premortem exercise has already conditioned you with a certain requisite amount of humility to be able to do this honestly. Separate your ideas and your decision makers’ possible perspectives from your and their identities, so they don’t feel like they are accepting or rejecting you in contrast to themselves. Speak of the ideas as distinct from yourself, rather than as your ideas.
Then, when meeting with and presenting to your decision makers, identify possible approaches as distinct from anyone who might hold them. Examine them in terms of their strengths, weaknesses and potential failures, without associating them with any particular individuals.
One useful question that may be worth asking as part of this discussion is, “Do you have any opinions that may contradict this approach, and if so, what facts would you consider necessary to change those opinions?” Again, treat the facts and opinions as distinct from the identities of the presenters, influencers and decision makers.
Of course, one possible outcome of all of this may well be that the decision makers make exactly the decision you think they shouldn’t. In fact, it’s probably worth doing a premortem on your approach that assumes this outcome to identify what could lead to it. But even so, you won’t be the first or last person this happens to, and saying, “I told you so,” several years down the road is not an appropriate response if you wish to help your organization continue to trend toward its best interests.
However, as long as your understanding is specific like raindrops and not nebulous like clouds, and you have prepared as well as possible to present the important facts in a clear, compelling and considerate manner, you can make a big difference in helping your organization avoid a great deal of difficulty and unnecessary multiplication of competing solutions arising from decisions based on inaccurate approximations.