Monday, November 22, 2004

Vinegar or Honey

The fall conference season is winding down. As I reflect back on the various conferences I've participated in this fall, one talk stands out for me.

It wasn't the content that struck me, so much as the delivery.

At several points in his talk the speaker said, "If you do this/think this, you're stupid." He singled out a number of practices that have been common in our industry for years. Yep, he stood up there and told at least some members of the audience "You are STUPID."

In my experience, telling people they are stupid is not an effective method of persuasion.

In fact, telling people they're stupid causes people to defend their positions more vigorously. After all, who wants to publicly admit they've been foolish, perhaps for many years?

If change agent is part of your role -- you're a consultant, manager, agilist, or you want to improve the engineering practices on your team -- and you see something that you know is not the most effective choice, try on some generous interpretations.

  • People generally choose the best option from their available alternatives. They may not have the experience or exposure to know other, more effective alternatives.

  • The choice that appears stupid today, may have made sense at one time. It may even have been an improvement over what existed before.

  • People may be diligently applying what they've been taught in school. After all, waterfall is still the predominate model taught in CS/MIS programs (when project management is addressed at all). When something that "should work" isn't working, people tend to question their implementation of the method, not the method itself.

  • Even if what they are doing isn't working well now, it may have worked well in the past.

    Assume people are smart, but may not have sufficient alternatives. And give people some emotional space to change without having to plead stupidity.

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