You can be right, or you can make change happen

Giulia Merlo
Cancer Research UK Tech Team Blog
3 min readFeb 27, 2019

--

Photo by Ming Jun Tan on Unsplash

I love being right. I always have. I love the self-affirmation that comes from knowing your idea was the best idea in the room, I love the feeling of having people agree with me, and (because I’m also fairly competitive at heart), I love winning. But recently I’ve started to realize that if I enjoy being right a bit too much, I hinder my own ability to make change happen in my job.

There is an old adage which is often repeated within the context of relationship therapy: you can be right, or you can be happy. The first time I heard it, I was listening to Esther Perel’s fantastic podcast Where Should We Begin? — a truly incredible listening, highly recommended if you want to exercise your empathy muscles — in which Perel offers advice to couples through actual therapy sessions. In a particularly harrowing and emotional episode, she asks a couple who keeps going for each other’s weak spots: do you want to be right, or do you want to be married? In other words: do you want to win the argument, or do you want to find a place where you’re understanding each other and you can make things work? It turns out, you usually can only have one of these two things.

Over the last months, I’ve increasingly thought back to Perel’s advice, but within the context of digital and technology transformation — after all, what is work based on, if not human relationships? And I suddenly started to notice how many interactions between the people who want to make the change happen (the service designers, the agile coaches, the product managers, those with a passion for new ways of working) and those to whom the change is being offered (the more traditional technology functions, whose job has usually been to make things safe and robust) were based not on finding a ground of common understanding and meaningful exchange, but on thinking ‘we are right’.

Of course, when we say that Agile is ‘better’ than Waterfall, we are moved by a well-meaning desire to improve the way everyone works. When we say DevOps is the only future worth discussing for managing our releases, we are supported by a lot of literature on best practice and plenty of professionals who’d agree with us. And when we tell teams they should always map and test their assumptions, we know that this will result in lower risk and better outcomes for their campaigns. Our desire to win the debate comes from positive intent and passion — but it can blind us to how we make our colleagues feel; to their reasons, their context, and their points of view. It can reduce our ability to empathize with them, and therefore, of course, it can reduce our impact.

Digital transformation isn’t about one side being right and winning an argument: change doesn’t happen through imposition. You can force a team to use a Kanban board, but you won’t have truly influenced the way they manage their work unless you’ve understood how your methodology can be applied to what they do and what it means in their everyday job.

To take people with you and create meaningful, long-lasting change, you need to understand where they are now, and why their experience of the same professional context is different from yours. And to be able to do this, you may just need to leave your desire to win the argument at the door — or at least, find another outlet for it: I find that a good game of Scrabble usually does the trick.

--

--

Giulia Merlo
Cancer Research UK Tech Team Blog

Head of User Research & Design @citizensadvice | Formerly of CRUK | Co-Chair of BIMA Charities Council | Feminist, European, passionate about pizza & Beyonce