How do you respond to questions?
Not just any questions … not “How’s the weather?” kinds of questions, but challenging, hostile-sounding questions. Questions like, “Why do IT projects always take so bleepin’ long?” “Why can’t we outsource more of our IT?” “Why do you IT types always complicate things so much?” Or the ever-popular, “Why do we need all this technology anyway?”
The temptation for most of us in IT is to argue. It’s the wrong way to go about things, because it violates the first principle of business confrontation: Never wrestle with a pig, because you’ll both get dirty and the pig likes it.
How should you deal with a challenge? For some in IT it’s a difficult question because our instinct is to respond with facts and logic. It’s built into the profession. When you’re an IT practitioner, you don’t have the luxury of ignoring facts and logic very long. When a server won’t boot or a program won’t compile, those are facts you just have to deal with. Logically.
Many business executives, on the other hand, have built entire careers on expounding whatever opinion is currently popular or convenient, regardless of what the facts and logic clearly demonstrate to those willing to take the time to understand the situation. They win by outmaneuvering their opponents verbally and politically.
If you treat their questions as challenges and defend yourself, you have a problem. That is, after all, what they want. Doing what your opponent wants you to do is rarely smart, regardless of the type of combat you’re engaged in.
How should you respond when challenged? Reap the rewards that come from being obtuse. Just because you know you’re being insulted doesn’t mean you have to act like you know. Treat every question as an expression of genuine curiosity, and respond as if flattered that the questioner has so much interest in what you do. So …
“Why do you IT types always complicate things so much? I was talking with one of your business analysts and I asked for a simple database. The next thing I knew, she was trying to walk me through a long, involved process for describing what the system should do, its business value, what existing databases it would need to link to … I swear, she could have built the system in less time than it took to go through the process. So why do you IT types have to complicate things so much?”
“Hey,” you might answer. “We don’t complicate them. They are complicated — it’s the nature of the work. Let me explain why we have to do things that way.”
Sound defensive to you? It does to me, and chances are pretty good your opponent will derail you before you get the first word of explanation out of your teeth.
Imagine that instead you said, with a big smile, “You know, you’re asking a great question! We get that a lot, and maybe you can help me figure out a solution. Everyone in IT hates that form too. We created it in desperation, because …”
The secret to not sounding defensive is as simple as it is hard to remember when someone is pushing you: Agree. Empathize. And ask for help. So …
“Why does every IT project take so bleepin’ long?”
“It sure seems that way, doesn’t it? How much time do you have — I’d love to show you what it takes to get one of these projects done. I wish we could do without some of the steps … don’t get me started about regression testing! … but every time we try to skip one the project just ends up taking even longer.”
At which point you launch into an explanation of each major step in your project management and application implementation methodologies and why they’re important.
One of two things will happen. Usually, your opponent will back away, saying, “This looks pretty complicated. I’m going to have to take your word for it — I’m late for a meeting.”
But sometimes your opponent will take another run at you: “Hey, hold up. I just asked you the time and you’re telling me how to build a watch!”
Here’s what you do when this happens: Once again, agree, empathize, and ask for help: “Oh, sorry, I misunderstood the question, I guess. Why do our projects always take so long? Here’s the shortest answer I have. Maybe you can help me come up with a better way of explaining it.”
“IT’S BECAUSE THEY’RE REALLY, REALLY COMPLICATED, YOU MORON!!!”
Much better, don’t you think?