How to Influence Without Authority

Photo by Elijah Macleod, unsplash.com

As a Product Manager, you are working within a discipline that exists at the intersection of many other functions (design, engineering, analytics, marketing, finance, etc), but rarely have these disciplines directly reporting to you. Being able to influence all these simultaneously is not an easy task, but a necessary one in order to drive outcomes for your customers and the business you work for.

Defining influencing without authority

To start, we need to first define what influencing without authority means.

Simply put, we can say that influencing without authority is the ability to make others act, behave, or think without having any power or right over them. All product managers should internalize this because some of the world’s biggest breakthroughs/achievements have only been possible through leading and influencing without authority, such as the creation of Google Maps to the historical moment when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. The success of your product is contingent on your ability to exercise this skill effectively.

If we take a step out of the PM-specific context, we can see that the ability to influence without authority is practiced in a large variety of contexts. We can look back to historical examples such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and his contributions to the American civil rights movements in the 1960s or Mahatma Gandhi’s influence that led to several major revolutions against colonialism, racism and violence in the 20th century. If none of those ring a bell, look to our modern-day influencers in Greta Thunberg and what she’s done with getting world leaders to prioritize and proactively think more about climate change.

You can see that this skillset applies to just about anything. In many of our cases, it may just be building out the next set of features and experiences in software or hardware to deliver a specific outcome for your set of customers, but the same set of principles and mentality applies even for people who are trying to lead global movements.

And in an ever faster-moving world, leadership is increasingly needed from more and more people, no matter where they are in an organization’s hierarchy.

Understand first, influence later

Just like how Rome wasn’t built in a day. Influencing without authority doesn’t just happen. Like all things, these things take time, patience and hard work. At Atlassian, we believe seeking first to understand is critical to being able to influence. We’ve broken it down into two steps:

  1. Understand the culture and context of the organization
  2. Know the degrees of separation

First comes culture & context

Background photo by Carol Hu, unsplash.com

To better understand the culture, new Atlassians are encouraged to adopt a seek-first-to-understand (SFTU) attitude before making any type of change. After all, you can’t change the thing if you don’t know how the thing works. There are many ways to build this mindset, but it comes down to observing and asking questions. Some of the ways we observe are through co-location (where possible), lurking in (relevant) Slack rooms, sitting in on meetings and most importantly having regular 1:1s with your team members & stakeholders.

In addition to observing how things work, it’s equally important to ask questions. There’s so much implicit knowledge that gets built up within teams that it can be easy to miss out on great insights if you shy away from asking questions. Some of the things we like to ask include:

  • Tell me about the last thing that succeeded/failed? What happened? How did the team respond?
  • How does a feature get shipped here?
  • How do you decide what you’re building next?

Identify the degrees of separation

Once you’ve understood the culture, you need to understand the degrees of separation, which is a measure of social distance between people. You are one degree away from everyone you know, two degrees away from everyone they know, and so on. It’s always easiest to influence people you work the closest with and on a daily basis. Decisions made at this level are often a lot quicker because you already have a shared understanding of the problem(s) and the work you’re focused on. Higher degrees of separation results in less shared understanding and lower power of influence.

Now that you’ve got a handle on the culture, context, and degrees of separation, try mapping out this all out so you can get a better understanding of the chain of product leadership and know who it is you need to influence.

Introducing Atlassian’s three influence ‘plays’

Illustrations courtesy of James Rotanson — Senior Designer at Atlassian

There are three plays that we use at Atlassian to influence without authority. In this section, we’ll define each of the plays and share tips with how and when to best utilize them. At a high-level, these are the key focuses of each play:

  • Psychologist: Understand the motivations and context of who you’re trying to influence & then working backwards to reach an outcome.
  • Pitcher: Constantly exploring and trying different ways of framing ideas that you want to influence.
  • Activist: Creating large movements by regularly sharing stories, perspectives and facts.

None of these plays are mutually exclusive; PMs will use a varied combination of these plays at different times.

The Psychologist

The best time to use the psychologist play is when:

  • You’re new to a situation — you just joined the company, the team, or even the project. It also works well if there’s been a change in your management team and/or stakeholder group.
  • You have a situation with a conflict — there’s a misalignment in the project, personal friction between individuals or there isn’t a shared understanding of the problem or the goal.

When exercising this play, it’s important to keep the following goals in mind. Your primary purpose with the psychologist is to:

  1. Understand context and motivation. Practice your active listening. Get a better understanding of what success looks like for the other party. What are their goals? Challenges? Seek to establish a common vocabulary.
  2. Playback. Confirm your understanding of their point of view by mirroring their story and building up empathy towards the pain points they’re trying to address.
  3. Iterate on the ask. Decide what trade-offs you’ll need to make (if any). Reframe your ask with the common vocabulary you’ve established. With their goals in mind, how might your work help them achieve what they’re after?

Last but not least comes the execution of the play. These are some of the specific activities we do at Atlassian to channel our inner psychologists:

  • Schedule one-on-ones with each other because this offers a safe environment to discuss ideas in detail. Ensuring that you have allocated time to individually speak with your team members & stakeholders helps to create trust.
  • Run regular health monitors with the team is important because it helps surface how the team is operating.
  • Do some background reading on documents and blog posts that your stakeholders are writing is a good way to build up any initial context that you might not be privy to.
  • Get social with your team and stakeholders. Share a meal or a coffee run with them to get to know them as people, not just colleagues.

The Pitcher

The best time to use the pitcher play is when:

  • You’re looking for the right framing — using different points of view helps to strengthen the overall thinking. Instead of stating things like “we should…”, try approaching it with a “What if…”
  • You want to refine a problem/idea — getting the problems and ideas right away doesn’t always happen. Pitching early helps you break down ambiguity and creates focus.
  • You’re closer to your immediate team — given how casual in nature this is, it’s best used within a team environment. You don’t need the idea to be fully baked as you might in a product review session with senior leadership.

When exercising this play, it’s important to keep the following goals in mind. Your primary purpose with the pitcher is to:

  1. Pick different lenses to approach the problem and idea from — you’re no stranger to tradeoffs. Use different perspectives to see how the problem and idea might change. Does it differ if you use a user lens vs a business lens? What about looking at from a pain vs benefit perspective?
  2. Draw, whiteboard or talk through your ideas early — there are times where words might not be enough. Getting in front of a whiteboard and visualizing the problem. It’s like the cliche goes, a picture’s worth a thousand words!
  3. Keep it informal — this isn’t a sales pitch so keep it casual! Keeping it lightweight helps your audience feel like they can give feedback and get involved. Generally speaking, the more high fidelity it is, the more certain and “ready” it’ll feel, which may reduce others’ willingness to critique it.

To execute this play, here are some of the activities we do at Atlassian:

  • Brand your concept and give it a life of its own. Adding some marketing flair behind it makes the storytelling easier.
  • Use any internal innovation or hackathon time that you might have. We have our quarterly hackathons (aka ShipIt) that all our teams use to explore all sorts of wild and crazy things.
  • Cultivate your list by keeping a running tab of anything you notice or think of.
  • Whiteboard together with your team to sharpen the idea and detail out what the gaps might be.
  • Elevator pitch to your peers and see if the idea(s) stick. If you can’t communicate the value prop in <60 seconds, it might be time to go back to the drawing board!

The Activist

The best time to use the activist play is when:

  • You are proposing a significant change — cultural changes, brand new products or making proposals to invest in new industry trends require more planning and buy-in.
  • You’re outside of your immediate team — as the degrees of separation begins to increase, you’ll need to refine your storytelling, focused perspectives and concrete facts.

When exercising this play, it’s important to keep the following goals in mind. Your primary purpose with the activist is to:

  1. Storytell from multiple angles — tell your story from both a bottom-up and top-down approach. It’s hard to stimulate large movements without influencing at different layers. Create advocates for your cause to scale the movement.
  2. Use good repetition — there’s a difference between good and bad repetition. You want to avoid sounding like a broken record by just repeating your cause. Instead, be empathetic and show your audience how your cause relates to their goals.
  3. Demonstrate passion and patience — having a passion for your cause goes a long way and will help you overcome the pushback or challenges you might get. Getting the timing right is also critical to the success of your movement. There’s a time and place for everything.

To execute this play, these are the activities we do at Atlassian:

  • Use presentations and ‘fake’ concepts to get your point across. Talking about your cause is one thing, but showing it in a north star or painted picture helps to evoke the emotion necessary to kickstart a movement.
  • Use thoughtful write-ups and narratives at the beginning to refine your ideas and to add logic and structure to your cause. Writing your cause forces you to think through the intricacies and to have sufficient evidence and reasoning for why it’s important.
  • Repeat at different timings if it doesn’t work out in the first attempt. Building a large movement requires patience and even if the cause is justified and right, it may just not be the right time.

Well, there you have it! There are so many wonderful ways to influence without authority and we would love to hear if any of these resonate with you by leaving a comment below.

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