How to Change Tech Companies for the Better
The more senior you become in your career, the less your individual contributions matter and the more important your ability to align and drive change in the company and people becomes.
The reason is simple. Leverage.
There is only so much you can do as an individual contributor as you are limited by your time, which is not true when a group is involved.
You will always bring more results by driving an aligned group towards common goals than you will on your own.
In this post, I'll break down an approach I've used multiple times in my career to drive change.
Here are the steps:
- Understand the environment
- Build credibility
- Commit to a course of action
- Start a dance party
(read on to understand this video better)
Understand the Environment
No change is possible without first developing a deep understanding of the company environment you will be operating in.
Some people call this "the first 90 days", which is outside the scope of this article. This is about how you approach your initial time on the job, watching, observing and soaking things in before making broad brush changes.
It is a common mistake to act too quickly (and naively).
You must spend your time meeting with as many people in the company as possible. One-on-one meetings are ideal as people hold back their true opinions in group settings.
Your goals should be to validate and reinforce surface-level opinions you might have from the interview process or any second-hand information.
Identify the big goals and problems. Where has the company come from? Where is it trying to go? What has it tried and failed? Why did it make decisions the way it did in the past? What's holding the company back now?
Credibility is like money in the bank. You have to spend some time making deposits instead of withdrawals if you want to see it grow.
If you want to introduce some change, you must have some inkling of credibility so people will give you the benefit of the doubt in choosing to believe in you and begin some minor acts on their own to contribute to the change.
Spending time to "understand the environment" begins the process of building your credibility.
People don't like to feel stupid, and there are often excellent reasons why a company is in a particular position financially, with tech debt etc.
Taking the time to understand historical decisions and constraints such as new business model introduction, acquisitions, limited capital, and limited time to ship product changes is an immediate credibility booster.
Your technical skills help here as well.
Can you "walk the talk"? Do you understand well what the team members do from your individual contributor days, even though that's not as important now? There is a balance for technical managers to maintain this level appropriately.
You don't need to be the best in the room at a technical skill, but you do need to be able to relate to it.
Finally, listen more than your speak in group meetings and one-on-ones.
Commit to a Course of Action
Commit to a course of action with what you've learned above.
Be decisive, but be informed and don't be stubborn.
My general rule for changing my mind is like switching lanes at the grocery store checkout aisle.
If you must change because new information becomes available, do it once only, decisively, with no switching back and forth.
Or imagine a ship in the ocean with a desired target. Imagine the ship with a radar that spins 360 degrees with a cone shape. You should be moving towards that target within the highlighted radar cone's margin of error and not in the opposite direction. This allows for small pivots on the way as you learn more and become more confident in the best path over time.
A committed plan is important because it ensures you will actually get somewhere.
Wandering around aimlessly in the ocean is useless.
The kicker is you could be completely wrong, but at least you'll arrive somewhere where the results can be reviewed.
That's better than excuses.
It may cost you your job, but that's the burden of leadership.
You must set a direction.
It is possible to make a bad decision by waiting too long to make any decision at all.
Start a Dance Party
Change movements encounter extreme friction and inertia in the beginning to get off the ground.
Understanding the company environment, building your credibility and deciding a course of action are all essential but amplified by the most important tip.
Co-create your action plan with others, don't build up to the grand reveal at the end after you've worked tirelessly behind closed doors for months.
By co-creating your plan in the early phases, you get people on board with your ideas, they feel heard, and you learn things early that could get in the way of success.
Rather than be people you need to present to and convince later, they are invested in the change's success from the beginning and will help you get things going.
Get comfortable sharing your raw and unpolished thoughts early, be open with people where you're at, and they will reciprocate.
Accept that things will be slow initially and that you will have detractors or people indifferent to your change efforts.
The key is to remain committed while listening to feedback.
Now, what does this have to do with dance parties and the video at the top?
Be brave enough to start a dance party, even if it's just you on your own in the beginning (Make sure you've spent time getting informed and building credibility first and then act decisively).
Keep listening for signals (like feedback from the business and people joining the dance party).
Importantly, be willing to be that 2nd, 3rd or 4th person in to elevate the dance parties of other people you believe in (it doesn't always have to be you leading! The catalyst is guy #3 running in at the 50 second mark).
Change won't get off the ground without those first few people willing to join in (Co-create your solutions with people and work hard to identify who can be those first few people to join your dance party).
I first saw this video 10 years ago, and my results have reinforced how such a silly video exemplifies human behaviour (Notice the hesitancy at the beginning and the non-linear growth over time)