Tech Manager—Inviting Critique

As I mentioned in last month’s article, no one likes to be criticized, let alone inviting it to happen. We discussed how to handle criticism and how to respond. But there are times when you want to encourage critique. Putting your plan up for review can be scary, but it also improves your outcomes. You may even want to have a critic on your team.

Embracing critique can works out well, if it is structured correctly. Let’s assume that you want to hear critique. It happens even if you do not hear it. Others might talk amongst themselves or behind your back. It is better to listen to critique than act as if it does not happen. Let’s ponder the scenarios that might help you make progress when someone is digging in their heels against your plans.

First, let’s talk about criticism and critique. They are not the same. They differ in targets, goals, focus and intent.

Criticism highlights what is being done wrong. It cares only for short term gains or avoiding things that the person does not like. It is vague and does not zero in on why something is not right. It points out what is missing, often dismissing anything it does not understand. It may be harsh and even cruel.

Critique includes what is being done right, as well as offering correctives. It focuses on what can be improved. It is specific on what and why things may not be going well. It couches itself in questions rather than accusations, asking for clarification before conclusions are drawn. It looks for the best in the plan. It is kind and gentle in wording and inflections when offering advice.

Inviting Critique

You could just ask for input or feedback. Then listen to what others are saying. Or you could get more formal. Proposals are a method of gathering critique. They provide a framework for directions you may take. Having a proposal for others to critique allows them to voice contrary thoughts and gets the discussion started. It does not have to be fully cooked or have every question or concern nailed down. In fact, it should not appear to be a done deal. Others will bristle with thoughts like “what are you asking me for, you are obviously done” or “my input is not needed now”. Make it a DRAFT and print that on every page as a watermark.

Circulate the DRAFT to anyone that might want to read it, and to some that would rather not read about your plans. They have plans of their own and may not be interested in what you are thinking. Specifically ask them for input and critique. Ask them if you missed anything or got anything wrong. Ask if your assumptions are correct. Get input on your conclusions or next steps. Then go back and rethink your plan and make revisions. By creating a proposal, it also lets others know that you are moving forward and planning ahead.

Invite a Critic to Your Team

Those who are pushing back on your plans for tech advancement can sometimes be invited to participate in your efforts. It is like the old “keep your friends close, and you enemies closer” concept, but I am not suggesting you invite an enemy to your team, just a contrary voice. Then you need to manage the relationship well. This person might be a senior staffer or a project manager that just does not think you are headed the right way. Or they may be heading in another direction altogether, like wanting to buy another tech tool or design software than they think is best.

It is a delicate dance when you get critics involved because it could go wrong. There are many stories about someone inviting a critic to the team thinking they could control the criticism. Think of Peter Bailey in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. He invited Mr. Potter to join the board of the Bailey Building and Loan, only to have Potter motioning to dissolve the institution upon his death.

When I want to involve them, I ask them to work closely with me to define the needs and goals of my team and to find out theirs. They may not be in every meeting or have a vote on the direction, but they can provide input and you can chisel away at their differing perspectives as you move along. I may invite them to some key meetings with the entire group. Or I may debrief with them after a meeting has concluded and discuss our plans. When I interact, I use the time to negotiate and persuade. If they are reluctant to start a new project with a new tool, I negotiate a better time to move forward, maybe a few months out.

If they are spouting out incorrect information, bring them up to speed. If they are reluctant to move forward, find a better time to move. If they want a different tool, find out what their tool does better (it might be an improvement). If they are scared that your plan might fail, offer a plan B, or backout plan as insurance. If they are flat out stubborn and cranky, make sure they know that you are going to make progress and then do it in very small increments. Be flexible, but firm.

I once had a person that was a senior manager, and he did not like the direction I was suggesting for introducing a new design tool to his team. By inviting him in, I discovered his pain points (“My team will have trouble learning it”) and his fears (“It will delay delivering design docs”). His desire for more training and project support made my team think longer about how we would get them up to speed. We settled on extended training and starting our efforts on the next project, which was a success. He ended up becoming one of my biggest supporters and helped me sell the new tool to other teams- a Win-Win for all.

Listening to contrary voices is profitable but can be painful. You hear things that you overlooked, ways of doing things that you did not know were happening, differing perspectives and opposing viewpoints. But when you take all these things into account, your plans get better, and they serve your firm well as you move tech forward.

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