These days, I'm working a lot with city planners and company execs on big, sprawling projects such as making water-management and transportation systems more efficient. That's giving me plenty of practice with consensus building—as well as some unexpected insights.
Here's what I mean. The more I focus on getting people on board with a task, the more I realize that this isn't a skill mainly limited to big or complicated projects. Figuring out how to build consensus about projects large or small is becoming one of the great head scratchers of our age. Our society is more informed than ever because of the Internet and the unending ways—Google (GOOG), the iPhone (AAPL), blogs—we can immediately tap into data. More information, though, often leads to more complexity, opinions, debates, and yes, squabbles.
We leaders can't manage in the old ways. We can't keep information to ourselves or work behind closed doors or listen to just a small cohort of advisers.
For a project to succeed, I have to communicate, communicate, and communicate again. Development must be transparent, outreach a given, and flexibility an automatic instinct. Overcommunication is the name of the game.
Smart Meters, Dumb Communications
I see the disasters that happen when companies and governments don't make people part of the equation. For instance, some consumers are pushing back against utility rollouts of smart meters, designed to lower energy use. Many of these homeowners don't understand how the meters work and how they might ultimately be of benefit. Hence they never change energy consumption patterns and end up complaining about higher bills. It's a classic case of too little communication from the utility to the consumer.
Still, it's one thing to know we need to take a different approach and another to actualize it. A few lessons I've learned can put most projects on the path to success:
1. Start with a small pilot. Whether you're a government agency or a startup, get input and buy-in from the very beginning. A focused pilot gives you the chance to engage people as representatives for the larger population. Make sure these folks are participants, not recipients. You're in this together. You'll sink or swim depending on what they think. Encourage them to share their insights and act on their suggestions.
I see firsthand how small pilots can help in other crucial ways. They drive near-term results so you can gather more support. And they can help you gain momentum so you can do a broader rollout or attract investors.
When government officials in the tiny European island nation of Malta wanted to deploy smarter, more efficient water and electricity meters, they started out with a pilot of 200 people three years before moving to a larger group of 10,000. After gaining the community's confidence, they're now rolling out the system nationally.
2. Be loud and clear about goals. Describe what kind of impact you expect the work you're doing to have. Explain when you're changing course and why. Admit mistakes and talk about successes.
This advice applies to communications with your clients as well. In a recent project we decided to change a technical plan because we felt it would deliver better results. We held internal meetings and several management levels had to buy into the recommendations. Next we had to present two options to the client, which differed in terms of capability, time for delivery, and cost. We clearly identified the risks and benefits of each, and worked with the client to determine the best option for his business. It worked.
3. Engage discussion. Get feedback from your team, as well as from the client. The point is to have a conversation—to figure out what the issues are and how to improve what you're offering. The aim isn't marketing—not that marketing is wrong. You have to sell your idea. But you also need to adapt it so it succeeds. You need to act on comments you get as your project evolves.
How do you engage folks? Have informal meet-and-greets with the officials or companies with which you're working. Get involved in local blogs and online community groups. Create a new group on Facebook through which you actively respond to what people have to say. Be up front about who you are and what you are looking for.
Above all, get input before you do something, not afterward. One of my clients has done a great job with this. He held community forums and sent frequent newsletters to his customers to keep them abreast of the changes he was making, how much it would cost, and the benefit they would receive. He ran a pilot project, then communicated the results to all his customers, not just the ones involved in the pilot. This helped to get everyone excited about the benefits they would receive—even though it would cost them more.
4. Communicate with superiors. To ensure that my project succeeds, I need my bosses to understand what it will accomplish and how it will measure up in terms of return on investment, so that they back my work. It's just another instance where communication is key.
Because we're now gathering a lot more input from others, it's also more important than ever to keep our bosses in the loop. Most companies are looking at new ways to generate revenue. This means either getting into new markets or creating new products. Either way, as you test the new ideas, you're bound to learn what works and what doesn't.
Your Manager: Advocate or Adversary?
Your manager can be an advocate or an adversary. Remember that managers have to answer questions about investment decisions and ROI, and will more likely turn into advocates if you are open about progress and problems, actively soliciting answers and help.
I'm involved in developing a new application that has morphed as client requirements have changed. At a certain point, we needed more people and more money for the project. Because the various managers involved knew about the issues and problems all along, they continued investing. At the same time, we have been talking to the client so he understands the direction we're taking. We take his input into account as we shape the project.
As managers, we all believe in communicating. But in our world—one defined by instant access to every shred of information and the ability for anyone to be a publisher—the strategies we're using and who we communicate with are changing. How we evolve as leaders will separate the successes from the failures. It will differentiate the projects that people are happy to back from those they will ignore—or tear apart.