The Art of Influence and Persuasion
Recently I had the opportunity to lead a Project where I had to define a scalable process (repeatable by nature) that streamlines a customer's product adoption experience for a particular use case. When adopting a product or a solution to any use case, a Customer would typically work with multiple teams. The journey starts from a Customer evaluating a new product and all the way to installing and managing the product. The Objective was to define a process that makes this a standardized approach for a certain use case so all customers have a very streamlined experience. To achieve this, this conceptual process that needed to be wholistic and formulate a behavior change of an entire Organization.
During the early stages the project, I had a general idea on what we wanted to achieve but there were no clear directions. I started by interviewing and brainstorming with several team members. After several working sessions, we started to get a sense for what what we needed to produce as a comprehensive process. Once I had the process charted out, I met with several leaders to get their buy-in. Thanks to the team’s work, we got amazing feedback with every meeting and commitment from all the leaders to support the initiative.
Throughout this experience, I had the amazing opportunity to work with a several stakeholders ranging from accomplished individual contributors to senior leaders from various teams. While I had no authority over the team that I worked with, we were able to work together on this common objective and produced amazing results. While no one had to agree to our Vision for defining a Customer’s adoption journey, every leader wanted to help and pitch in. In retrospect, I feel that “Influence and Persuasion” were crucial soft skills that I can attribute to the success of our Project.
At the time, I took a mental note to write about my experience and more broadly cover the effectiveness of Influence and Persuasion. So deviating slightly from technology, this article is going to look at the soft skills needed to be effective particularly with a focus on Influence and Persuasion. I hope it helps everyone that is looking to further understand these topics and further leverage them to achieve the impact that they want to drive.
Imagine a situation where there is a problem that exists today and you have a Vision (or you have been tasked with executing on your Organization’s vision) that aims to solve that problem. You’ve done all the homework and you are bought-in (this is critical) to the hypothesis. Your research indicates that there are sufficient quantitative and qualitative benefits in putting together a Solution. However you probably don’t have the right technical chops to fix it yourself or it could potentially take a long time if you were going to do everything on your own. You realize you need a team to make the “idea” a reality!
As you start working with the team, how do you ensure everyone on the team is rowing in the same direction and executing to your vision of the Solution? One obvious answer is to use authority to get the results that you need. However there are some situations where you don’t have the authority over the team that is working on the Solution. This is where soft skills such as Influence and Persuasion come in.
DISCLAIMER: This is my attempt at explaining a vast topic as how I’ve experienced it. I may not be able to do justice in a single post but I will do my best to explain it as clearly as possible (this is a vast topic that others have spent years studying).
Intent vs Manipulation
But wait, isn’t influencing people also an act of manipulation? Yes, to an extent.. As explained by Shreyas very succinctly in this post, Influencing with a good intent is necessary. It is often when the Intent is maligned that it becomes an act of manipulation!
Intent trounces all other skills. Here's why:— Shreyas Doshi (@shreyas) August 1, 2020
𝙂𝙤𝙤𝙙 Intent × Persuasion = Influence
Influence × Execution = Impact
Impact × Consistency = Success
𝘽𝙖𝙙 Intent × Persuasion = Manipulation
Manipulation × Execution = Collective Harm
Collective Harm × Consistency = Misery
Essential Skill Set
Influencing is a very useful skill to utilize when you are working on a role that doesn’t come inherently with the authority over the individuals you are working with. Several roles come to mind that need “Influencing” as an essential skill set to have -
Customer Success Manager or (Technical) Account Managers manage aspects of the Customer/Account’s Success to ensure that the Customer is able to attain high returns on the investment made with a particular Product Line or Company. While one role tends to be more technology focussed prioritizing unblocking technical challenges and the other role focusses on Customer achieving their business outcome, the intent behind both these roles (IMHO) is the focus to ensure that the Customer is able to realize value on their investment. It requires working with various Customer stakeholders to guide them in a certain direction as well as working with various Internal teams to ensure they Customer’s goals are met.
Product Managers work with the widest variety of stakeholders both internal and external including Developers, Sales, Marketing, Support, Customer Success, Professional Services, Customers and Industry Analyst. One of the key skills to be successful(among many others) in this role is their ability to influence the development team to take the Product in a certain direction.
Program Manager tend to work with disparate groups to establish a process (or) a service (or) drive the execution of multiple projects that aims to achieve a larger organization goal. They often deal with a project sponsor, a set of cross-functional teams, and assigned project managers where they are often influencing and persuading to ensure that the team is collectively executing to attain the larger and common goal
Obviously, there is a lot more to these roles than what I’ve laid out but the common element here is that Individuals in these roles need to work with a variety of Stakeholders that often don’t report to them. So how can you get people that don’t work for you to listen to you and help take the direction that you think is best? The answer lies in essential skills such as Influence and Persuasion that we often leverage knowingly or unknowingly.
A Closer Look
- influence as - “the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behavior of someone or something, or the effect itself”
- persuade as - “cause (someone) to do something through reasoning or argument”
I’m going to break down aspects of these skill sets from the perspective of someone that is driving an Initiative so they can help their team achieve their goals. So let’s jump in.
Part I: Buy-in
Your first order of business when working on a potentially new solution is to validate the hypothesis and to convince yourself that there is sufficient fit between the value that the solution provides to what the customer really needs (often referred to as a **Product-Market fit**). Do the necessary leg-work to ensure that the idea is sound, that it really solves the problem that it intends to solve and that there is a sufficient appetite for the Solution (i.e., ensure the Problem is worth solving). Once you are convinced, you'll want to get buy in from both the Sponsor(s) and the Team. Depending on the circumstances around how the idea originated and your confidence level on the idea, you can either take a top down approach or bottom-up approach
- Top-Down - When your confidence level on the hypothesis is high, make an executive pitch covering the problem, your hypothesis and the value it can bring to the organization. Getting buy-in from an executive sponsor is going to help when you start to engage with the team and help make the team’s buy-in easier to accomplish.
- Bottom-Up - When your confidence level on the hypothesis is low, you should run the idea by the team (or) your peers (or) industry experts to get their feedback. If they throw up any red flags, you should plan on addressing that first and further refining your hypothesis. On the other hand if they get excited about the hypothesis as you are, you are already winning here! Use the team’s buy-in as ammunition in your pitch to get commitment from the executive sponsor.
Let’s further break down the buy-in phase by looking into these following areas-
Start with the Why
As Simon Sinek states in the video below, you have to understand and clearly communicate the “why” behind your hypothesis and if they are inspired, you’ll have a team that will be self motivated to make the idea a reality.
Ask yourself the following
- Why are you building the product or service?
- What is its purpose?
- Why should it exist?
- What is the team’s belief?
- What is your Organization’s belief?
If the team is newly formed or don’t already have a working relationship, you might have to run through this exercise multiple times to ensure there is consensus. With a high-performance team or with teams that have already formed a bond, the best way to influence is by showing them the direction and getting out of their way as most driven individuals prefer to have a detailed understanding of the goal and then have the freedom to come up with various options to achieve that goal.
During the early stages of the Project and any time there is a shift in direction, it is important that you drive consensus amongst the team members on the Vision, the Design/Plan, the Experience that you intend to drive. The last thing you want is a dysfunctional team working on a solution without clearly understanding the problem or the goal that needs to be accomplished. Being hyper clear about and writing down your understanding of the Scope and Goals of the project is going to help significantly. Set the expectation so your team stick to those guidelines and that they should be prepared to adapt to any changes as new information surfaces.
Early on when the team is “forming” is a great time to encourage healthy debates and explore various ideas and thought streams. This also allows you to get your team to practice getting into a state of consensus - everyone agrees to commit to a certain stance (after debating through an idea).
Reason to Logic
Data never lies… When you have access to the data to solidify a theory, always aim to let the data tell the story. Data can help validate your hypothesis and will help get buy-in from any stakeholder easily. While intuition is critical, data can help fact-check your intuition and thus can be very valuable.
When I had to convince our sponsor and the team on the need to focus on defining the Customer Journey for a particular use case over other, I used previously documented Industry Analyst reports that reaffirmed my theory. I had also gathered a lot of anecdotal experiences (by surveying various teams) to back up the hypothesis.
PS: Resist the urge to overextend anecdotal information to the point that it becomes hyperbole - “hustlers” tend to do this and push forward to get short term success but it is surely a recipe for failure on the long run…not just for you but also your team, your stakeholders and your users.
Once you are bought in to the idea and you have a vision on how to move forward, you have to exude the passion to attract and infect others into following the path that you want to take! If you don’t believe in the idea yourself, it’s going to show in the results.
If you look at the video below, you’ll see an amazing phenomenon where an individual starts a dance movement all by himself. There are two key takeaways here
- You have to be the leader that will be in the forefront and show everyone how it is done (even when the idea appears unachievable at the time)
- You have to understand that no one is going to follow you immediately. Consistently exuding the same energy and passion is going to bring your first follower and then some more!
Part II: Collaboration
There are going to be times when you don't have a lot of data to back up your hypothesis but your instinct (primed from working on the subject longer than others) knows that there is a certain direction to take but you are not able to produce a just argument explaining why the team should side with your approach. With enough social capital and built trust, you are going to be able to ask for favors from your team. As you start getting acquainted with the team, your goal is to encourage collaboration and start building a sense of trust with the team. This will help build the social capital that you're going to tap into as you go through the Project.
Let’s look further at various tips around Collaboration that I leveraged when I started working closely with the team-
I learned about this concept of thinking about our relationships with colleagues as a bank account. Similar to dealing with a bank account, the balance in your Account represents how strong your relationship is. When you have a high balance, withdrawing money is easy and straight forward. Similarly, when you have a strong relationship where you have already built a strong foundation of trust and sense of comradery, you can easily ask for favors.
PS: Beware of asking for too many favors or asking a huge favor that might strain the relationship. This is similar to attempting to withdraw more money than you hold. Sure your bank can loan you some amount but when you go beyond your credit limits, they might break ties with you.
Similarly when you return the favor or thank someone for their help or when you do a favor to someone, you are depositing money into your Relationship account. The more you deposit, the more your bond strengthens thus increasing your ability to seek help.
For more than one reason, it is good to build one on one relationship with your team members as you’ll never know whose help you’ll need to get an idea pushed through. There have been several instances where I’ve had to tap on my relationship with one individual and have that person broker an introduction or get a team/individual that they are more familiar with on the Solution. People are more likely to hear from someone they already know vs someone that they have just started working with.
Speak the language
Understand your audience and know your team members so you can speak their language (not literally but based on what you share in common)
- Are they your peers?
- Are they external or internal?
- Are they senior or junior to you?
- Are they technical or business focussed?
There is no better way to influence the direction of a Project than finding the common thread that you share together and building on top of that. As an examples if you are working with developers, you’ll want to know some common terms or go further to learn some aspects of the technology. This is going to help build trust with the team as well.
Seed the Idea
One trick that I’ve heard about (but not been very good at executing) is the ability to seed an Idea within your team or another individual. This requires a lot of tact and patience to be position a thought within your team. If a team is able to persuade themselves on the plan or a certain direction there is nothing that can beat that. This also helps build team work and nurtures a self-organizing team - which is often the goal of Agile methodologies being leveraged in most organizations.
Listen, Ask Questions
“You don’t need to know all the answers” - a very useful advice that someone gave me leads me to the next topic. Your goal to encourage team collaboration is to let the team talk more during meetings and for you to take a role where you are facilitating conversations and not directing these meetings. As the facilitator, be prepared to step in to drive engagement or set some order but consciously focus on the higher goal of driving collaboration.
Ask for Help
We are social beings after all and most are eager to help but only when we give them the opportunity to help. You can try to do everything on your own but the reality is that you’ll end up burning yourself out. Your team is there to help achieve the common goal that you’ve set together so try to let your team know when you need help.
Part III: Execution
Ideas are plenty! There is always a bright idea and a vision for a better future. What sets apart a winning idea from others is the ability to execute on the idea. It takes a significant amount of will and drive to push through all the barriers, unblock all the road blocks and punch through all the uncertainties that you are going to encounter. I've spent countless hours preparing and thinking about what approach I should take to convince someone on a certain direction - how should I present the idea, what sort of language and tone should I use, how should I deal with push backs etc.
During the Execution phase, it is important to manage conflict and have a good lay of the land to negotiate or renegotiate terms effectively-
This could be an entire post on its own. As you work together as a team, conflicts are going to arise. Not everyone is going to see eye to eye and thus you want to foster this culture of being able to disagree but committing to a certain direction. Be sure to document the decision and agree to live with the consequence as a team.
When unhealthy conflicts do arise, my biggest advice (having dealt with a lot of conflicts) is to nip it out in the bud - easier said than done, right? It is actually pretty easy if you are observant of your team’s dynamics. In my experience, when you get two folks (that have conflict) have a sidebar and once you have them voice out both their perspectives, they start seeing reason and don’t tend to be very combative. An alternate approach is to let the team sort it out themselves and only step in if it gets to a point where someone’s behavior start impacting team’s productivity.
As you work towards your idea, there are going to be challenges such as scope creep, changes in timelines or budget or even shift in focus. It is important to be able to negotiate with your team, with your stakeholders as well as your sponsors. For your sanity, Negotiation tactics are going to help balance expectations across the various Stakeholders that you are going to work with.
Imagine a situation where you find yourself in a position where your timeline to deliver a project has reduced. Your team has already committed to a time and it might be too difficult to ask them to work overtime to deliver this feature. You should attempt to work with your stakeholders to buy more time as well as explore possible options with your team. Gathering the details on constraints and the reasoning on either side will help arrive at a reasonable middle ground for this situation.
Another example that comes to mind is also timeline based - assume you need to deliver a new grandiose feature and when you approach your team, they say it’s going to take half a year which is not going to fly with the Customer. In this situation, the ideal compromise is to see if you can break up the feature into smaller chunks that can be delivered over time to the point where it is agreeable to the Customer. This is also great as the Customer can also see the progress to the commitment over time.
Lead by Example
While you are not managing the team you are working with, you are responsible for their Success and the success of your Initiative. Your team is looking up to you for guidance and you have to be the one that needs to make tradeoff decisions and living with those decisions. You have to go the extra distance and show commitment to the cause. For if you are not committed, your team will never be and the result will be as mediocre as your commitment.
In these roles and especially with high performing teams, it is also crucial to lead and nudge the team forward by leading from the front.
You’ll meet various people with various background and from various stages in life.. you’ll find that you cannot influence everyone but this should give you a start or something to think about.
Finally don’t take things personally! You don’t have to win every argument… You don’t have to be right all the time… You don’t need to have the best ideas… You don’t need to have all the answers… In a role such as these where you are working with multiple folks, aim to harness and leverage the collective energy and brain power to your advantage. Listen with an open mind and seek out those bright ideas. As someone driving the initiative, you need to focus on the big picture and ensure that you are driving towards that goal. Be open to change and evolve as you learn new things…as a team
Hopefully this article helps you as how thinking about these concepts have helped me over the years. Please let me know in the comments what your experience has been and if you have any stories of leveraging such skills to drive a large Project or Product, please add your comments. :)
- How to Get Buy-In for Procedures
- Power of Influence and Persuasion Joe Polish Interview | Robert Cialdini
- The Science of Persuasion - Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini, Ph.D.
- and a decade of working with and observing People :)
I’d like to thank these amazing folks that helped review this post