Earning a seat at the table

One of the frustrations I sometimes hear from people in tech teams is that they’re not included sufficiently in significant decisions, or that they know how to solve several of their organistion’s problems, if only they could be heard. For all I know this is also said from time to time by sales people, accountants and lawyers, but I don’t work with those people in the same way that I work with tech teams, so I can only speak to what I know.

And in such situations, the thing that is then asked is, “Why won’t they listen to us?”

There are often two answers to that question. The first is that an awful lot of people think they’ve got the answer to the organisation’s problems, and so it’s very difficult to know who to listen to.

The second answer follows on from the first, but is a lot harder to accept: you have to distinguish yourself. This about earning trust from the people around us, which first includes those in our team, but then from people outside our team. Or for a really brutal version: first show you can excel at your own job before thinking about telling others how to do theirs.

The most influential developers I’ve known have first been really good at their job, then they’ve helped their immediate colleagues to greater achievements, then they’ve engaged directly with people around the organisation to help solve their individual problems. At this point they are known by others as someone who can deliver, and who understands the challenges of others. When they speak, they are listened to. Often, they are sought out by name.

The same is true for teams. Teams first have to not only deliver, but also be seen to deliver. Then, by engaging with indivdiuals across the organisation they demonstrate they can first be trusted to do their job, then respected in how they do their job, and finally they become partners in how the organisation evolves.

The most explicit example I’ve seen of this is in UK government—GDS’s expression of it from 2013: “The strategy is delivery”. GDS quickly became a powerful and respected force in government, because it really delivered a lot of stuff, and it was a lot more successful than most people expected. But it wasn’t just successful at delivery. GDS was very good at promoting its successes. That’s the “seen to deliver” part of it.

Achieving all that is not easy. It takes a long time and a lot of hard work. It means putting one’s own house in order and facing up to some hard truths along the way. But facing up to those hard truths, and overcoming them, is what makes others listen to one person or team above the noise of everyone else.

Photo by David B Young