Friday, December 5, 2008

Being right is not enough

It was so blindingly simple, so obvious that a brick could get it. The idea was the prototype for no-brainer. It was so easy to understand that a housebroken puppy on a waxed floor would stop and take notice. To be honest, it has been so long that I don't actually remember what the architectural idea was, only that it was so elegantly simple it could not fail - and even a project manager could understand it.

There was a competing idea as well, which would work - in the sense that knotted ropes will work in the place of elevators, that sledgehammers work as back-up house keys, and hot air balloons work as public transportation. <sarcasm>The alternative was not brilliant</sarcasm>. To quote from the Hitchhikers guide to the universe "it's fundamental designs flaws were completely hidden by its superficial design flaws." In the end my idea (whatever it was) did not get implemented and the alternative (did I mention that it would work) was. Sigh. Eventually the predictable problems with the alternative solution surfaced in a variety of ways, most leading to some production issue, late/early night meetings, dissatisfied customers, and the "how did we get here?" conversations.

So, how do we get there? How does it happen that clearly superior technical solutions get bypassed for inferior solutions? Talk about history repeating itself. Talk about history repeating itself. OK, that was cheap - but why do the best technical answers not always rise to the top of the priority cream? The answer is definitively non-technical.

We've talked about trust in past blogs here. Trust is a hard-to-define commodity that is as difficult to build as it is easy to lose. Trust is based on relationships, and relationships are the key to almost every successful recommendation. As I think back on where, when, and why my early career recommendations were (and sometimes were not) accepted, I can pretty much point to the relationship I had with the decision maker to understand which ones were followed and which were not.

So here is the tough message that you may not want to hear. Being right is not sufficient. Being smart, being technical, industrious, hard-working, tenacious, innovative, or even brilliant is not enough. In fact, you can forgo many of those attributes, if you replace them (or better yet add to them) with knowing how to build and maintain a relationship. Here are some keys:

  • Spend more time listening and less time talking to your customers/managers/users (did he say managers?)

  • Before ending a conversation, repeat back what you thought you heard and make sure they confirm your understanding.

  • Stay in touch.

  • Use a variety of communication mediums (telephone, voicemail, email, instant messaging, and personal contact).

  • Never, never, never deal with conflict via email!

  • Always, always, always be receptive to criticism.

These last two bullets require a little more discussion as they will destroy trust and relationships very fast. I cannot count the number of email chains I have seen that contained deep technical conversations pitting one idea against another. Mistake; don't do it. No one in the history of recorded time has ever changed their mind after reading a counter argument to their own suggestion in a technical email. I actually checked this out on If your recommendation conflicts with someone elses, you need to gather the relevant facts, your best non-emotional professional demeanor and have a face to face conversation. You say you don't like confrontations of this sort; well then let me write you a strong argument to why I'm correct. Or better yet... let's talk one on one, maybe we can learn from each other (get it, get it?)

No one likes to be criticized, and to be sure there are those that are better at delivering unpopular messages than others. Being receptive to criticism doesn't mean you have to like it, or even agree with it. Being receptive means listening to the underlying message of the criticism and trying to glean something useful out of it. Remember, most people suck at criticizing - you probably do to, so don't hold your critics to a higher level that you hold yourself. You will build tremendous trust if you appear to be receptive to disagreements, especially if you respond positively.

The whole point of this post is that good architecture design can get passed over for inferior ones because the inferior designs are proffered by individuals who have a stronger relationship with the decision makers. Don't let your great ideas get lost because you failed to build the necessary relationship with the key stakeholders. If you know your design/solution/correction/suggestion is correct and feel you're loosing the debate, the issue is likely that your voice is not carrying the weight it should by the right people. Being right is not enough. You need to be right, heard, and trusted by the right people.

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