A Framework for Generating Change

As part of the process of raising the level of effectiveness of our Digital Media development team in Taiwan / China, I’ve enlisted the aid of the groups architect, a really good guy by the name of Winston Li.

Winston & I had discussed a number of initiatives that I wanted to put in place, ranging from extra “build” targets to more formalized code reviews, and he went off to try to engage members of the various teams.

Unfortunately, he ran into a few roadblocks, and (I believe) was feeling not great about his progress. I felt OK about his progress, though, because one of the by-products of his efforts was an inventory of how each team felt about each of the initiatives he was championing – a key step in generating change.

I use two tools in combination when trying to generate change – one taught to me by a former WordPerfect enterprise sales guy (perhaps Georges Sabongui, but I can’t remember for sure), and one shown to me by a group called Legacy Transformational Consultants. (Please assume their version is better – I’ve no doubt forgotten or changed details over the years!).

The sales technique had six steps:

  1. Use the “warmest” approach your can.
  2. Don’t assume you understand the situation. Ask open-ended questions to learn “reality”.
  3. Clearly enunciate the benefits of your “product”
  4. Solicit, and respond to objections
  5. Seek a commitment
  6. Hold people to their commitment WITHOUT creating guilt

The other technique recognized that different techniques and language are necessary to influence people, depending upon how closely aligned their viewpoint is with the desired viewpoint.  In short, the techniques to convert someone from “committed” to “evangelist” are very different than those used to convert someone from “hostile” to merely being a “disbeliever”.

I’ll provide more details on both techniques below, but Winston had in his work completed at least steps 1, 2, and 4, and provided a clear map of where each team stood on the scale of “Hostile” to “Evangelist” – and laid the cornerstone and foundation for the changes to come!

Here’s the details of the two techniques, and how I use them in concert.

Levels of agreement:

The premise of this approach is that different states of agreement call for different actions and language

 The 7 states are

  • Hostile
  • Inclined Against
  • Apathetic
  • Mildly Interested
  • Engaged
  • Committed
  • Evangelist

Hostile -> Inclined Against

The behaviour you’ll see from hostile can range from totally ignoring you, to downright rude. The best way I’ve found of approaching someone that is hostile is to do so indirectly. Find some common ground to start the conversation (weather, sports, a current situation). It’s tough to maintain a fully hostile outlook with someone you’ve just agreed with. If possible, use an ally to break the ice (See “Use the warmest approach you can”, below).  The goal at this level is only to seek permission to discuss what you want to discuss.

Inclined Against -> Apathetic

This is the most typical starting point if you are resorting to use this framework as a tool. The goal at this level is to get the person to answer no to the question “Is there any harm in finding out more about what I’d like to discuss”.

Apathetic -> Mildly Interested

Categorize this as “setting the hook”.  Using what you know about the other person, try to find some advantage they will see from the outcome you are proposing – more free time, potential for future promotion, glory and admiration, dollars saved, or even just your gratitude! The goal here is to have the person STATE an active interest in hearing more about your proposal.

Mildly Interested -> Engaged

This is usually the “minimum target”, meaning that for many discussions, this level is sufficient.  The goal is to have the person go along with your proposal, whether it is following a new process, or signing a PO. I don’t think anything more needs to be said here, as every kid has usually mastered this transition by the time they have turned 10, as they learn to manipulate their parents!

Engaged -> Committed

This is the most useful transition that you can usually accomplish. People who are at the engaged level will follow through – but will feel free to re-visit their decision as soon as something changes in their environment (workload, budget, hunger level, other…).  However, if you can get someone to be truly committed to an outcome, they are much more likely to be able to withstand the normal day-to-day forces that sway people from an intended course of action.  The goal here is to get a verbal statement of commitment that recognizes some “bad consequence” that will occur if they sway from their commitment.

Committed -> Evangelist          

This is the most powerful level that can be reached, but is often overkill. Evangelists, however, are necessary if you are trying for wide-scale organizational change.  The goal at this level is to identify the people who a) you can convince to be evangelists, and b) will be powerful allies in achieving your goals.  Put another way, you can’t convert everyone to be an evangelist – so identify those you can convert, then chose the most influential of those you can convert. Although the  most influential people may be harder to convince to be an evangelist than the guy seeking a cause, the payoff in the long term is many times more effective from having identified someone that people respect, and WANT to follow.


The six-step “sales” technique:

1) Use the “warmest” approach your can
The guidance here was don’t make your work any harder than you have to.  If you don’t already have a relationship with the person you’re trying to “sell”, see who you know in common that can act as a positive reference, or better yet, have that person do some of the “selling” for you.  If all else fails “Smile at them. It lets you know you’re their friend” (courtesy of SJ, in “The Blind Side”)

NOTE: Don’t move beyond Step 1) until you have moved the person from “Hostile” to at least “Inclined Against”

2) Don’t assume you understand the situation. Ask open-ended questions to learn “reality”.

This has been invaluable advice, in all situations. As human beings, we have a very strong ability to map ourselves into other’s situations – and 99% of the time, we’re wrong!  Instead of assuming you understand another person’s motivations, ask them about it, using open ended questions. At least 9 times out of 10 you’ll find yourself using a different approach than if you had gone with gut feel as to where they stood on an issue. Note that the higher in the scale you are from “Hostile” to “Evangelist”, the greater your ability to ask questions about the situation. Keep questions to a minimum until people are at least “Mildly Interested”.

3) Clearly enunciate the benefits of your “product”

Use the information you gathered in step 2 to highlight the benefits of your product for the particular person and situation you’re dealing with.

4) Solicit, and respond to objections

Don’t preach and move on – check to see what the person thought of the idea or product you are evangelizing.  Most people will naturally nod as an expression of understanding, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they agree. It’s amazing how forthcoming people will be about not agreeing with you if you ask them – but would otherwise let you go about your day without mentioning the fact that they completely disagree with what you have told them!

5) Seek a commitment

It would be great if you got to full agreement in the first meeting every time, but life just isn’t like that.  Getting a commitment from someone gives you the leverage to approach the person again to revisit the discussion. If all else fails, at least ask for the ability to discuss the topic again, if anything changes. Better is to have them “Think about what we’ve discussed, so we can pick up where we left off after you’ve had time to absorb the information”.  Some people know innately the correct level of commitment to seek – but in my experience, most people can learn this skill over time.

6) Hold people to their commitment WITHOUT creating guilt

Use the commitment received in step 5) to discuss the subject again. If you only achieved the minimum commitment, this will mean waiting until some factor has changed – new budget year, a more relaxed schedule, a change in the economy – if you look creatively, you will find lots of “excuses” to revisit the commitment. However, at all costs, ensure you don’t make your partner in the conversation feel guilty about it if they haven’t followed through on their commitment. If you can, renew the commitment, even if at a lower “level” – but if you make the person feel guilty, it is much more likely that they will just avoid you, or the topic of discussion, in the future – and the game is over.

While this is described as a six-step technique, it can actually be nearly infinite as you may repeat steps 4,5, and 6 multiple times to move people from “hostile” to , and for long “sales” cycles may need to drop down to level 2 again on occasion to update your view of reality.


Other Notes:

  • On “Solicit and respond to objections” – In addition to the regular danger of mistaking nods for agreement, there are (at least) two groups that we need to ensure we have actually reached with our arguments. The first group is anyone who has taken “active listening” training. Most “people managers” will likely have had this training somewhere along the way. Here’s a link I found that discusses the technique (http://www.mindtools.com/CommSkll/ActiveListening.htm). The other group I have found are English-speaking Japanese people, who will say “Yes!” to indicate that they understood what was said.  (Without asking follow up question, a recent sales meeting in Japan would not have had the result I wanted – and I would never have known why!)
  • On “Seek a commitment” – its better to under-ask than over-ask. If you under-ask, you get another swing at the ball.  Over-asking can get the other person in a “no” frame of mind, and you may find yourself with no opening to revisit the conversation.
  • The scene from “The Blind Side” is at 1:08 in  the trailer, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i1hG_mjQojw&feature=related)

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