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6 tips to build consensus on a tech initiative

You have to get people behind your project, or it won't happen, at least not the way you think is important. An organization leadership expert and a social action leader talk about how to get things done your way.

You have a wonderful idea. Maybe it’s something small, such as a process improvement. Or your bright idea could be something big, such as a new service, a new application, or even a new company direction.

But you can’t do the project alone, and you can’t rope in enough of your colleagues to make a dent in it. No, this calls for resources and blessings and sign-offs. That means meetings and a maze of approvals. Just how do you get from the "here" of an idea to the "there" of a golden go-ahead?

Many techies think first about the technology they’ll employ in developing their bright ideas. But technology, it turns out, is hardly the only issue. (We assume that you’re smart enough to have the tech part at least sketched out before you start bugging the rest of the company with your brainstorm.)

For most people, the hard part is accessing the soft skills of persuasion. And the people who are expert in the business of persuasion may not be in your business—or in what you may think of as “business” at all.

Identify the stakeholders. There are more than you think.

Figure out who would be affected by your project. Get their input and win them over, as participants, champions, or a budgetary source.

It’s important for the full range of stakeholders to be heard, using a broad definition for “stakeholder,” recommends Isabel Dunst, chair of the Commission on Social Action for the Union of Reform Judaism.

“People think the stakeholders are the users,” Dunst says. But, she points out, stakeholders are those who lose resources if the company decides to put money behind your project instead of theirs. Resources—people, money, time, office space—are finite, and your idea is probably competing with others. If you can identify some of those competing ideas and bring their advocates to the table, Dunst suggests, you may find common ground.

Esther Derby, an expert in organizational leadership, agrees that it is key to pay attention to competing interests. “People who love technology think the best idea will win out. There are limits to that belief,” she says. “In most organizations, you have to pay attention to people's competing interest, find out what they care about. It is seldom purely a totally objective view of what is ‘right’ or ‘best,’ for whatever definitions those have.”

Find common ground

Before you start rattling cages, you should do an honest check to see if anyone else around you would care about what you want to do. “If you're the person with the new idea, assess whether your company is ready for it before you start investing all your time and energy,” says Dunst. “Is the company more comfortable with incremental change or bold new ideas? In the culture of your company, how important is innovation? Do they reward innovation? Do they reward people who are innovators even if they don't adopt the idea? That's a very personal kind of assessment.”

People support what they care about, so express your idea in that context. “Find some mutual purpose,” says Derby. “That may mean thinking about how the initiative would seem from their point of view. What does this person care about? How would the initiative benefit those causes?”

For instance, if your idea is something that keeps developers from getting frustrated, and your company doesn’t care about developers, that isn’t a winning path to take, Derby points out. But maybe the decision-makers care deeply about customer experience. “If you think the initiative will improve the customer experience, then framing your discussion so it aligns with that value is much more likely to gain their interest and then potentially their commitment,” she says.

Seek consensus, not unanimity

“Give people an opportunity to air what they have to say,” says Dunst. “Embrace the challenge of actively listening to those people. But at some point, you have to make a decision.”

Dunst says her organization tries to reach consensus, not necessarily unanimity, on initiatives. “If you're going to go for unanimity, then you are never going to get anything done,” Dunst says. Instead, aim for a consensus. The agreements need to honor the people who don't agree, so they recognize that you've made decisions in a responsible fashion and that they've been heard. “Even if they end up not believing, you should do it,” she adds.

Emerging technologies are changing our future. A new world is coming.

What constitutes a consensus is different in each context and in each instance, of course. Sometimes people agree after talking themselves out, and sometimes “consensus” is reached by the boss saying so.

“To spend all of your time trying to convince people of the rightness of your position just is not useful in any context,” Dunst says, “because it's not that you're absolutely right and they're absolutely wrong. It's that you have some different perceptions of which benefit is more important than some other benefit and you just accept that there's a difference.”

Some voices are louder than others

When you’re driving for a decision, understand the influence dynamic you’re working in. Some people simply have more pull than others. “The interactional process is different if you're working on a peer-to-peer level” than if you’re negotiating with higher-ups, Derby says. “In some ways, there may be more politics involved. But if you're a non-manager trying to find a point of influence of mutual purpose with someone who is a manager, there's a whole status differential. That needs to be attended to in some way.” For instance, you may need to bring in other people the person with higher status is likely to trust.

Dunst sees a somewhat different dynamic, befitting her position in a social-action nonprofit. “In running a meeting,” she says, “certain people have more power. It's really the responsibility of the powerful, not the responsibility of the weak, to make sure that the weaker person has room to speak. Just because they don’t have the power doesn’t mean that they may not have some view that is important for you, as the powerful person, to incorporate into your thinking.”

If you think people aren’t giving you a fair hearing, enlist outside help to bolster your position. The outsider doesn’t need to be an external consultant, as long as it’s someone that the person putting up a roadblock would trust and believe.

Derby recalls a senior vice president who wouldn’t allow stakeholders on a project to meet, “which struck me as kind of silly.” The problem, she learned, was that the executive cared purely about outage minutes. Unless that issue was addressed first, the project would not proceed.

“So I found out whom she was likely to believe, and then I interviewed those people,” Derby says. Based on the input and analysis of the situation from the experts the executive trusted, the VP was willing to say, OK, we can have this meeting. “So that was influencing her, but it was also making use of a trust in expertise network within the organization.”

How do you find those experts? “Watch who people go to for advice, or how people react to the people who speak in a meeting,” Derby says. “It’s not scientific, but you can get some sense of it.”

If you’re at all advanced in your career, it should not come as a surprise that the best technology does not always carry the day. Networking, understanding your corporate culture, knowing how to run effective meetings, and building consensus should be part of your everyday toolkit. They just come in particularly handy when you want to raise the stakes and get something done.

How to build consensus on a tech initiative: Lessons for leaders

  • Ask yourself: Would my company care about my initiative?
  • Cast the net wide for stakeholders, and actively solicit their input.
  • Learn and understand the power dynamics behind decision-making.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.