Stop trying to convince people

01 Mar 2023

For much of my career, I’ve been in positions where I was sought out to provide guidance for larger or more complex tasks. That could be a functional spec for overhauling an existing system, a new vendor assessment or even how to approach a difficult or hard to trace bugs. This was all something I enjoyed as it gave me variety and breadth into the types of work I was doing day-to-day. Along the way, I built up common yet reusable processes for each of these tasks that allowed me to have a consistent and reproducible approaches to solving each of these issues.

Later on, I started offering my services to other companies who didn’t need someone like me full time but still needed someone in an advisory role on occasion. For the most part, this was great. I’d get insight into the problem, we’d chat about what options they would like to pursue and then I’d help them get there. However, there were a few times a company would get me in, talk about a problem, which options they would like and instead of executing the plan, nothing happened. I would follow up with questions about whether they were stuck, or we didn’t cover a particular portion, with the intention of making my value justified and not just another waste of money. In all bar one case, the responses I got were all along the lines of “Thanks for your help, we’re going to put this on the back burner for now but use this in the future”. Sure, it was a small portion that got to this point but this always frustrated me because I felt like the client had wasted their time, which was part of the reason I was there.

One day, while helping a friend out who was head of the technical direction at a startup, I got one of these responses from an engineer under him. Having the good rapport we did, I asked him “You’ve just spent all this money on getting me in, and now you’re not doing X. What can I do to help get this over the line?”. We went back and forth having a good converstion and towards the end he said “Well maybe, it was your job to plant the seed but not watch it grow”. Despite being a little philosophical, it gave me reprieve that regardless of the outcome of the engagement sometimes it just won’t get to execution – and that is totally fine for me and for the company.

I didn’t think too much more about that exchange until I was reading William Ury’s “Getting Past No” which covers negotiating with others that may be initially more on the adversary side. I won’t ruin the book for you however, one of the chapters focuses on the psychological ramifications of what happens when you use power to tell someone want you want. In a nutshell, because it is an external factor to their own decision making process, they are more adverse to it. The solution? Plant a seed for them to get where you want them to without directly telling them. For me, this was a lightbulb moment on a couple of levels. The first was with negotiation but the second, and more important to this story, is that my advising role was never about getting the outcome. It was about planting the seed so that in time they would come around to the decision on their own and want to run with the tasks. Further still, planting enough seeds so long after the engagement was finished, the company would still be benefiting because someone else would be pushing for the outcome.

While the book mentions it as a negotiation tactic, it is is something that I now (try) to apply more broadly. It also lends itself nicely with situations where the outcome isn’t immediately achievable due to other competition - priorities, budgets, etc. If you put effort into planting the seed, when there is an oppurtunity for it, you have the best chance of success to be picked up.

So, I ask you. Stop trying to convince people, instead plant the seed.