Build influence without authority as an individual contributor
Redirecting a moving train
You may have found yourself in a situation where you needed to persuade others to see things your way without the backing of formal authority. There’s no perfect formula to solve this, but I’ll share what’s worked for me. Let’s redirect the train together, all aboard!
Catching the train
A few years ago, I joined a project where we didn’t have a Product Manager, and the developers were building something based on designs from a different project. Jumping into this partway, I had no idea where to start. I realized I was trying to catch a train moving in the opposite direction, and there were two things I could’ve done:
- Jump on and take a back seat as a passenger
- Halt the train to help redirect it
I barely knew the team. How might I get them to trust me and influence change in our work?
Back in the days when we were in the office, you’d greet people as you saw them in the office. You may have lunch with your team, grab a coffee, and chat about things that aren’t work-related. Remote work changed this for us. No one distracts me at my desk apart from Benji (my dog) scratching the door. These days we need to make a conscious effort and be intentional in exchanging pleasantries.
Before working remotely, I’d never thought much about pleasantries and talking about the weather (that’s a thing). The switch made me realize these in-between conversations are the essential glue that keeps the team together. It initially started with questions like how are you doing? How was your weekend? But what made a difference was remembering what a team member said during that conversation, and following up.
I’ll always remember this phrase from Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends & Influence People.
Little phrases such as “I’m sorry to trouble you,” “Would you be so kind as to — ?” “Won’t you please?” “Would you mind?” “Thank you” — little courtesies like these oil the cogs of the monotonous grind of everyday life.
When you stop oiling the cogs, it dries up and hurts itself. Oiling the team bond and exchanging courtesies is just as important.
Bring the wagons together
Some may recall the stories of Thomas the Tank Engine; the carriages and wagons never wanted to cooperate or collaborate. The wagons always wanted to go their way, and do whatever they wanted, never mind the trouble it caused others. There are a few things we can do to mitigate this.
Taiichi Ohno, industrial engineer and manager at Toyota, introduced the Andon cord, which authorized every employee on the assembly line to halt production when they immediately noticed a problem or defect. We can also put this into practice with projects, empowering the team to raise their hand and say when something is not working. For instance, I frequently shared my work progress with the developers as I was exploring ideas. I invited the team to share their critique async and in sync, which encouraged them to raise red flags and, in some instances, made us return to the drawing board to understand the user flow better.
At first, I got caught up in thinking that as a person leading the project, all the heavy lifting and responsibility fell on my shoulders. But this quickly caught up with me, and I felt like I was slowly starting to sink.
Instead, I started to take a step back and make space for others to own a task. I paused to ask if anyone wanted to own the job before jumping the gun. Pausing is powerful, for example, I use 8 second pauses to create space for hearing thoughts.
I also started encouraging team members to take turns leading retros and syncs. This instantly made a difference and empowered the team to own important aspects of the project. Ownership isn’t a singular word. It’s a teamship. Involving the team throughout the design process (discovery, research, prototypes, iterations, and testing) encouraged shared ownership, advocating for the user experience, and increased feedback engagement via slack and during sync calls.
Fostering team culture is a key aspect to collaboration. But did you know you can influence culture without formal authority? Rather than seeking the culture, be the culture you seek. In my previous career as a Biochemist, I was so frustrated with the toxic team culture, and accepted it as it was. After shifting into design, I started seeking fun opportunities. When I couldn’t find it, I initiated rather than waiting for someone to own it.
Taking that first step is tough, but diving into the unknown and discomfort first is what makes us leaders and owners. In this case, make the space for folks to share their perspectives and thoughts without being seen as a conflict. This helps build trust through honest and direct communication. The game changer for me was active listening, taking the time to understand my team, constantly practicing it, and staying neutral. It helped folks feel I was playing on the same side as them.
There’s no cookie cutter solution, however this is what I tried and what worked for me. What do you have to lose other than an opportunity to learn? If you’re curious to learn more, check out my talk from DesignX Remote Design Week.
- DesignX Remote Design Week talk
- How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie