They were scared. It wasn't that it showed in their eyes, they had become too good at hiding it for you to see it that easily, but the hesitation in their voice, the way in which they did not leap to embrace the idea, the way that they held back waiting for someone else to say something, said all that needed to be said.
They just don't believe you.
Too many times they had seen one of their peers let go for something trivial or for no reason they could specify. To them, taking any chance was too much risk. Rewards came to those who minimized risk, not those who embraced it.
Now here you are, expecting them to take you at your word that risk is an ok thing. Failure is not just an option, but something you expect and something they should embrace.
Yeah, right. Just like you embrace your severance pay.
They were not buying into it. It wouldn't be just one time they needed to see it happen. They would need to see it over and over again; would need to see their peers rewarded over and over again before it really sunk in that they would never be made scape-goats. They would never be made to shoulder the blame, even if they were required to shoulder the responsibility.
You can't really blame them; you've been there. You remember how much you hated it; how much it destroyed your soul. How it eventually led you to realize your time there was long past and that moving on was the only way through. Out was the path.
But they hadn't realized that; they had stayed because it was home. Now here you are, the new person, the one they're still not sure about, and you want them to go against what is sometimes decades of ingrained habits. Good luck with that.
Forcing the issue
"This is unacceptable."
The expected response comes, "But you don't understand; this is how its always been. No one minds."
Of course they mind, they've just given up any expectation that you actually care enough to fix it, so you see no reason to care.
You go back and forth and they don't believe that its a problem. You see it; why can't they? They've accepted it for so long and no one has talked about it for years, its become the norm. The baseline was reset and what anyone without decades of history would see as absurd is seen as the way things aught to be.
Eventually, you realize there is no reasoning with them and you call their bluff... fix it because you said so. Its not where you wanted to be, but its where you have to go. You hate it, you want to get them to see it on their own, but their habits are too ingrained. They do it, even though you're out of your mind for forcing the issue.
The work gets spec'd out, the dev team spends a couple weeks on it, its tested and rolls out to the user community. You start to measure the results. That's never been done before; no one ever thought you'd follow up to make sure it had the impact you knew it would. Every single day, weeks worth of time is saved by your users.
It's a massive success, not because it was your idea. Everyone should have seen it, but they didn't. While the situation for your users has been improved, your team has their situation changed as well. They know you're serious and they know you meant what you said: they now believe you.
Defusing the fear
It's a new year. Last year, you made the example that the status quo wasn't acceptable, not just in the big success, but also in smaller ways. People, as they always do, had messed up. You focused on how they could learn from the situation. You didn't yell or scream. No one was blamed for it. No one got fired; in fact, the person who made the mistake got rewarded for the other great work they had done. That just doesn't happen. At least, it didn't used to happen...
Now you pull the trump card, it isn't just your job, its their's. You're going to up the ante in a big way... its now everyone's job. You're going to rate their performance not on how stable they keep things, but how they push through the instability and chaos. You not only want then to force change, you're forcing them to do it. Uh oh, the team thinks you're out to get them!
You know you're not, and likely deep down, if you've spent the needed time building the right relationships, they even know you're not out to get them. But old habits truly are hard to break and that's become their natural instinct. You're a nice enough person, but not one worth risking their career.
You need a true believer.
There are three types of people I've seen who fit this bill:
- The Skeptic. They have a reason to disbelieve everything. Nothing is as it seems; they're one step removed from a full-blown conspiracy theorist.
- The Traditionalist. This is how we do it. Maybe they don't know any other way. Maybe every other way they've ever seen has failed even if the reason they claim for failure isn't accurate. Maybe they just don't like any other way. Whatever the reason, the one true way is all they will adhere to.
- The Survivor. Their email history is heavily annotated. They can tell you who made that decision 20 years ago and point to the bridge that person lives under. No matter what happens, they will always survive. Comparisons to a cockroach in nuclear winter are not publicly appreciated but are privately reveled in.
If you can win one of these to your side, you're on your way. Its not that the rest will just follow along (they won't), but they will now begin to question their long held beliefs. You've not won; you've just beaten the rest of the competition off the blocks.
It might seem cliche at this point to think about these types. Yes, it is, but sometimes cliche really does fit the real world. There is a reason we stereotype people, we just need to realize when that stereotype is accurate and when it is not.
Keep moving forward
It takes time, but they now believe you. More importantly, they believe in you. You're not perfect, and they realize you probably didn't come up with anything new or unique, but the way you brought them along and encouraged them to keep moving toward the place they didn't know was possible is what got them trust you.
And this is where the title of this post comes in to play. Your job title may be to create software that solves problems, but that's really the least of what you do. Its the most visible sign of your work, the one that people see and touch every day, but it's not the most important thing you do.
Greater than the software are the ideas. These are what shape and direct the software into the state that is required to bring about the best outcomes. Not all these ideas will be good, some will end up being legendarily bad. The great ideas will be forgotten as they become the new norm. The bad ideas will be recorded and brought back out as a reminder of what you've learned. Yet the best part of bad ideas is that they can be reformed into better, perhaps even good, ideas.
Even greater than ideas are people, and the team is why you're here and they are the ultimate product for you. In the end, software becomes outdated and is replaced. Ideas come into fashion and in their day are replaced by newer, not always better, ideas. But people, we remain.