How do Saul Alinsky's rules for activists apply to tech executives? Let us keep counting the ways.
In part one of this two-part series, I laid out the first five of activist Saul Allinky's "Rules for Radicals," changing them slightly to apply to competitors and the business of technology. In this installment I cover rules six through 13.
Rule 6: A good tactic is one that your people enjoy.
This notion is deceptively simple, so I'll focus on a corollary: You need to deepen your relationship with your people. Because you can't know what your people enjoy unless you know your people, unless you get past the tidbits of self-serving associations you make with your two-, three- and four-downs (Bob -- infrastructure, two kids; Priya -- content management, skier; Steve -- governance, alcoholic).
Plenty of management books talk about the importance of listening. But how many broach the topic of caring?
That's the difference between you and that nun at the soup kitchen: You both listen; she cares. And because of that she's a better organizer, probably a better leader and definitely less of a waste of space.
You already know this paragraph but read it anyway. Get to know your people. Have "skip-level" conversations regularly. Flatten your org. The higher up you are in the command, the more valuable your frontline connections will be. Truth gets lost as it travels up the communications chain.
And for God's sake, don't let your handlers treat you like some time-constrained celebrity. How meaningless and demotivating are those forced early-morning breakfast sessions we've all experienced where a dozen "up-and-comers" get to spend an hour eating eggs with the C-level? I can hear your handlers as they whisk you away to your next meeting. "That went really well." "Our employee satisfaction surveys tell us we should have more of these."
What did you ask in those surveys: "Who likes eating eggs?"
Let's keep this simple. If you're not spending a quarter of your time building and strengthening relationships in one-on-ones with people other than your directs, quit your job and join a convent.
Rule 7: A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.
An avalanche takes anywhere from a few seconds to a minute and a half. As the snow travels downhill, the larger pieces of slab disintegrate into increasingly smaller fragments. If the fragments become small enough, the snow takes on the characteristics of a fluid.
If you're the Yeti who started the avalanche -- or you aspire to be -- you understand implicitly that that fluid state is the aspiration of any social movement, any growing business and (slightly less ambitiously) any IT project.
It is this avalanche principle -- start small and simple and then incrementally grow size and complexity -- that IT project managers should learn from community organizing. It's the psychological underpinning of two of today's most popular methodologies: Eric Reis's lean approach (build-measure-learn) and Steven Blank's focus on minimum viable product.
Projects that start small and divide their deliverables into pieces that don't "drag on too long" better position teams for success. They build confidence through an avalanche of small, visible wins. And that confidence lets the project leader increase the complexity of the deliverables incrementally.
Cleaning graffiti, for instance, kicks off exactly this kind of empowerment cycle. It starts with the powerless, folks who would never imagine challenging "the man." And it gives them a way to achieve small visible victories (i.e., a cleaner, more beautiful, pride-inspiring neighborhood). Organizers then leverage that small burst of confidence into bigger, more complex wins, facilitating an avalanche of community- and confidence-building that ends with an empowered team that successfully challenges City Hall. After that, it's just rinse and repeat to create habits of empowerment.
Before you write off this approach as leftist garbage, think about how powerless most employees feel in large corporate bureaucracies; how perfectly Martin Seligman's description of learned helplessness describes the cubicled masses. It'll hopefully inspire you to follow:
Rule 8: Keep the pressure on.
I'm not a big fan of the Tea Party, a political movement with all the charm and warmth of John Wayne Gacy's clown photo. But they do have one redeeming quality: They are unrelenting.
And even though the Tea Party's leaders equate Alinsky with Lucifer, they use the same book of rules: They keep the pressure on by changing tactics regularly and inserting themselves into every news cycle. How does this translate to technology and leadership? Two words: burning platform. Three more words: You need one.