Show, don’t tell

Posted by Matt on November 18, 2017 · 5 mins read

During my first few years working in software, I had the opportunity to work with a mentor who had the best approach to introducing new ideas that I’ve seen. The best way I can sum up the approach would be “Show, don’t tell. And don’t be a jerk.”

To give some more context, we worked in an organization where change was widely viewed as something to be feared, rather than something to be embraced. Ideas for change were often met with resistance, especially by management.

The primary way that he worked his magic was through small experiments - with the bulk of the work done on his own time. If there was something that he viewed needed to be changed, he would take a small slice of that problem, and apply the new idea to it. It might not solve the whole problem, but it showed the path toward it. For example, if we had a problem with triaging production issues from messy logs, he might take a crack at changing the styling of alert emails that got sent out to be cleaner (this was before Splunk and other tools). But not everywhere, maybe just in one place on just one of our many applications.

Then, he’d show it to the team to see what they thought. He did this without explicitly  selling the idea - just stating the facts and showing off a working example. Seeing the idea actually working, the team would often embrace it. We also had a working template to start from, should we decide to pursue it. This was a seed that he planted, and if the team decided to nurture it, that idea would grow a life of it’s own with just a little bit of initial effort.

What didn’t happen? Talking about the idea for change before starting. You didn’t hear “I think we need to change X to Y because…” followed by an hour of debate.

I’m guilty of doing this, and it doesn’t work. Talking about an idea for significant change, without action, dooms it from the start. Imaginations run wild and what-if scenarios scurry about like frightened mice. All the time wasted pontificating could be spent doing a small experiment to see if the idea really works.

If you do a change experiment simply, and test it cheaply, chances are you have a lot less to lose than a meeting where the whole team talks for an hour. Paradoxically: if the idea is complex and hard to start on, sometims the best, cheapest experiment to run is a thought experiment and asking people what they think. You have to use good judgement, but avoid the dangers of the hour long debate!

We also can’t forget that people sometimes are apprehensive of change in a team. They’re comfortable working the way they already work. Why would they change? But if you have visible progress on that something works, instead of just words, it’s hard to be afraid of or argue with. Also, don’t forget to hear them out. Why are they resistant? Simply letting people talk through their feelings goes a long way to helping both you and them understand the new idea. They may have very good reasons for feeling as they do.

You have to be prepared for this strategy to fail. You will have ideas that are great and your team just isn’t ready for. Or, you will have terrible ideas that are rejected for good reasons. You cannot get defensive if these experiments do not pan out. You cannot under any circumstances get upset if those ideas are not embraced immediately. If they aren’t, try again, softly, with a slightly different experiment.

Many of us in software work with Agile processes, quickly iterating over software features until we hit on what our users want. Think of changing an organization the same way. If it doesn’t work the first time, what can you do better? Was it a problem with your idea, or was it just not communicated successfully? Was your example too small, so that it didn’t really present the power of your idea?

Above all: Don’t be a jerk. Lasting change on a team requires buyin, and that doesn’t happen if you’re not empathetic.

So go out there, do good work and plant some seeds for change in your team.