Three Short Sentences

Three Short Sentences

Mike Jansen
Mike Jansen

November 05, 2014

The Project

A few years ago, I was tasked with the migration of data across build, staging, and production environments. It was heavy with software to automate most of the tasks, but also heavy with process. Every project member would be affected, and it was important to come up with a solution that not only ensured 100 percent data integrity, but that kept the team happy, too.

I was the technical lead on the project. I had a few days to prepare a plan and present it to the client's project owners, so I got down to work. I mapped out every scenario. I listed the pros and cons of three different approaches, with detailed analysis for each.

I was confident that the project owners would take my recommendation. The project would be a huge success, and everyone would congratulate me on a job well done. I would deflect the praise to my team, of course, but everyone would really know how awesome I was and that it was my plan that got us there.

The Big Day

The day came. Adam, the head project manager from my team, joined the call with the two client project managers, John and Steve. I reviewed the options, the pros and cons, provided the analysis, and pointed them to the appendices in case they had further questions. I waited silently for their approval and congratulated myself on finishing the meeting on time.

John spoke up first. "Well Mike, I'm not sure. This approach sounds complicated."

"OK, well let me explain again about the benefits of this approach..."

This happened a few times. I kept going back to the data and the details.

John replied again, "Mike, I'm just not sure about this. I think we need a different solution."

My heart rate started to rise. "This is definitely the way we should proceed. I've spoken with other teams, and we have the best approach possible."

He was insistent. Exasperation crept into my voice. This was not going the way I expected.

At this point, Adam spoke up for the first time since saying hello at the start of the call.

"John. Look, you know this is going to be complicated. This is the way to go."

I thought he was just making conversation to lighten the mood. To my total surprise, John responded:

"Well… OK."

We ended the meeting and they accepted my plan. The project went on to be a success, of which I am still proud of to this day.

I never did gloat about it, though. I knew what really happened—the entire project almost came off the rails, and Adam kept it moving forward with three short sentences.

Trust Through Relationships

After that call, I realized that it was not just three short sentences that saved the project. It was the relationship that Adam had with John and Steve. John trusted Adam. He knew that if Adam said it was the right thing to do, it was the right thing to do.

John did not trust me, or my data. It was more important to him to have faith in the person presenting the plan than to trust the plan itself.

Where I went wrong was that I was communicating to convince myself, not the person whom I needed to convince. Where I needed data to trust in the plan, his personality was such that without a strong personal connection, he didn't care what was being said.

I started observing Adam. When I would just skip over the chit chat and get down to the details, he always made sure to ask about someone's family. He genuinely cared about the other person, and that caring was recognized and returned by that person.

Through his actions, Adam showed that he listened and heard what the other people had to say about the most important parts of their lives. This helped him earn the trust that we needed to take the occasional leap of faith and make a big project succeed.

Adapting Your Communication Style

At a certain point in any reasonably sized software project with numerous stakeholders, users, and developers, a critical decision will need to be made. This decision will be made without all of the information available. The project stakeholders need to trust the people they work with to recommend the right plan, to do the right thing.

One way to build trust is to exhaustively research and present details that leave no doubt about your technical superiority. Depending on the person, that’s an effective approach.

Another way that is sometimes difficult for the introverts out there is not just demonstrating your expertise, but demonstrating that you can listen. Demonstrate that you actually hear what the person is saying, and that you empathize with it. This may not be a necessary skill when working in isolation, but once the pressure’s on and the business is looking for a plan and some answers, it’s invaluable.

This is not a call to change your personality. After years of adapting my communication style, I still have and happily embrace my introverted tendencies. However, the time I’ve spent improving in this area has led to better relationships with clients, co-workers, friends, and family.

There are many personality types, and while the data-driven style can take you far, it rarely leads to success entirely on its own. If you consider yourself the data-driven type, don’t wall yourself off from building these relationships. It can have a profound positive effect on both your career and your personal success.