The Taming Power of the Small

“I’m really struggling with my current position right now”, I confessed to Thuy. I had been thrown deeper into an operational role, having to improve the flow of work for the developers and researchers, but so far met with difficulty after difficulty, some of my own making, and felt like sinking.

We had recently been back in the office in Saigon after having to work remotely for a couple of weeks, and it’s the first time we had met face to face in more than a month. The office was still pretty empty. I think it’s likely that most of our staff will not feel comfortable to be in close proximity with each other, and we might need to change the way we work to adapt to a much more remote way of doing things.

The advantage of an empty office is that we can chat comfortably without having to cram into a meeting room, so we picked a nice table near a big window facing the river, with the morning sun shining gently through the half-drawn voil. Through the window we could see the wind picking up and starting to gather the clouds in the sky.

“What’s the problem?” she asked with consternation in her voice.

“I don’t have any official leadership role, yet I need to make changes that need authority to be implemented. And that’s not all, the current leadership seems to be hostile, or at the very least uncooperative.”

“Ah, you are talking about Douglas, right?”

“Yeah, Douglas is one of my problems. I believe that he has his own ideas of what needs to be changed, and how, and he has much more influence than I do in the team.”

“True, but you do have the trust of senior management, right? I mean, you’ve been hired by them to make those changes. What exactly are you trying to achieve anyway?”

“Yes, I hope so. They asked me to automate the tests, so that we can move towards continuous integration and deployment, and also get everyone to do code reviews, pull requests, tidy up the API, and a lot more. Basically our whole system is a mess.”

This was probably one of my lowest points, and I was quite out of my depth. I am used to being in a position of little influence; that’s how it has been most of my career. Nothing wrong with being an engineer, doing work that you are proud of, having little victories. I have also been in positions of leadership, where I was given the authority to make sweeping changes. I must confess that those changes have not always gone according to plan, but at least I knew where I standed. This situation is new to me: I am expected to make changes but don’t have the authority to do so.

“It’s not new to me, this. The system has been a mess for quite some time, and I am sure that everyone is frustrated about it. Surely people will welcome your suggestions?”

“Suggestions?” I ask, taken aback. “It can’t be just suggestions. I mean, I have experience, I have had to deal with these systems in the past. I need to get people to start following the good practices that I am putting in place, with discipline.”

“Ah, I see. I think I understand your problem.” she says, with a thin smile revealing secret knowledge, which I am sure she would share with me next.

“Go on…”

“You are trying to force a change, but you don’t have the power. You are looking for obvious, direct power, but that’s not the only kind. There’s also indirect, soft power.”

I shake my head in exasperation “I don’t want to have to walk on eggshells!”

“No no… it’s not like that. You are in a position where you don’t have direct authority, but you can act as an advisor. You can use your position to restrain, tame, and create boundaries.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Senior management respects your opinion. You can advise against paths from the current leadership that you think would be harmful, limiting the damage that they can cause, and at the same time slowly convincing them of your ideas, with good arguments, backed by data, and extra effort put into the communication. You have to do this with gentleness if you are to be successful. If you try to force it through, you will only encounter resistance”

“Hmmm… that makes a lot of sense, but it’s not easy.”

“Of course not, even more if you are a proud person. You need to reduce your ego, and understand that everyone has their own agenda. In our case there’s a leadership structure that precedes you, and they too might be proud and with big egos. They might resist change out of self-interest, which might not be obvious, or just lack of trust in your capabilities. It’s better that you make use of friendly persuasion.”

“Oh… that’s so tough… why does it have to be so tough?” I say, revealing my despair, but coming to terms with the idea.

“Yep, that’s human nature, and human relationships. Rarely easy. The situation is not unfavourable though, there’s a very good prospect of success. You certainly have obstacles in your way, yet sometimes in situations like this all we can do is take preparatory measures. But if you carry your purpose with firm determination, gentleness, and adaptability, I am sure you can do it. I will help you too, of course.”

The taming power of the small

Has success.

Dense clouds, no rain from our western region.

I feel relieved to have someone like Thuy as an ally. “Thanks Thuy, you are great. I don’t know what I would do without you.”

Thuy blushes: “Thanks… I have been in a similar situation as you for most of my career. I think it’s very typical of our culture too: you have to achieve things by gentle persuasion. When we see that we can’t produce great effect in the outer world, when our direct influence is small, all we can do is refine the expression of our nature in small ways. Like convincing your parents to go to the doctor, if you are forceful you will fail, best to be small and make gentle changes, mindful of your objectives, always.”

“Great, I think I know what I need to do.”

The clouds started threatening rain, the sunshine disappeared, so we decided to expedite lunch.

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The Book of Changes is a great source of insight. We explore each of the hexagrams in a modern context.

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Marco Zanchi

Marco Zanchi

Interested in mathematics, philosophy, and language. Head of engineering for BridgeU

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