ManagementSpeak: We had a plan but didn’t execute as smoothly as we hoped.

Translation: We had a few vague ideas and made the rest up as we went along.

Longtime correspondent Allison Dolan watched what happened when an organization tried to execute a few vague ideas and smoothly passed along management’s  euphemistic account of the results. Thanks, Allison!

The formula for persuasion consists of three straightforward steps: (1) sell the opportunity or problem; (2) collaborate in designing a solution; (3) formulate a plausible plan for implementing the solution that resolves, or at least ameliorates the problem or, in the case of an opportunity, successfully exploits it.

Political case in point (oh, don’t be that way – what follows won’t be tribal and will be relevant to leading in business situations): Here in Minneapolis we’re soon going to vote on amendments to the city charter. The most controversial is an attempt to address the clear and apparent deficiencies in how policing happens in our city.

What makes it controversial (and interesting from a KJR perspective) is how its proponents have failed to follow the principles of persuasion.

Sell the problem? As its proponents point out and its opponents don’t contest is that policing in Minneapolis needs to change. There’s broad consensus on the problem. Consider it sold.

Solution? It’s pretty vague – so vague that the courts have ruled that it can’t be on the ballot in its current form, on the grounds that voters can’t tell, based on the text of the amendment, what they’d be voting for or against.

Plan? Even the proposal’s proponents agree that there is no plan. Their plan is to figure out the plan once the proposal passes. Regrettably, if the proposal passes it would, by law, take effect 30 days later, which, given the vagueness of the solution, is an unlikely outcome.

Imagine you see the need for a change in how your company does business. For our hypothetical we’ll imagine you see severe inefficiencies in how it handles “non-strategic sourcing” (general purchasing, in case you aren’t FBC (Fully Buzzword Compliant)), along with many purchasers paying more than they should for the merchandise they need.

And so, frustrated with the status quo, you form a committee which does what committees do, and produce a proposal. Its explanation of what’s wrong right now is specific and compelling. Its solution, though … centralize non-strategic sourcing … is lacking in specifics.

But it’s the plan, which is to start work on a plan once the Executive Leadership Team (ELT in case you aren’t FBC) gives you the go-ahead, is what results in admiring guffaws at the excellent satire you presented to lighten the load created by so many of the other dreary proposals the ELT has to wade through, replete as they are with detailed financial and process optimization analyses, and fine-grained Gantt charts that illustrate their implementation roadmaps.

Which is to say the ELT laughs you out of the room before you even managed to explain you’re following Agile principles.

To be fair to all parties, your approach isn’t quite as absurd as it seems. While miniscule in scope compared to disbanding the Minneapolis Police Department, replacing it with a Department of Public Safety that might include policing functions should that turn out to be desirable … while miniscule in comparison, centralizing non-strategic sourcing in a large enterprise is no small task. Designing all of it in detail before implementing any of it would exemplify Waterfall at its worst, with lots of opportunity for blind alleys and into-a-corner painting.

And so, chastened, bloodied but unbowed, you read up on Agile and discover Agile isn’t what you’ve done. So you fire up the old word processor and write up a truly Agile approach, which is to say you explain the opportunity much as you’ve already done, but then ask for only enough funding and staff time to: draw up an Epic-level account of what the solution would entail; and describe a set of Agile business change methods that:

  • Rank lines of business from simplest to most complex …
  • Charter and create a “minimum viable product” centralized purchasing department …
  • Transition the simplest line of business to centralized purchasing …
  • Rinse and repeat until all lines of business have been transitioned to centralized purchasing, or, in a few cases, left alone on the grounds that the costs and disruption of transitioning them exceed the benefits.

Bob’s last word: If you’re really clever, you’ll figure out how to set this up so you can quantify the benefits of each line-of-business transition so they pay for the next transition.

Bob’s sales pitch: Want more about how to organize business change? Read (and share) a copy of Bare Bones Change Management).