How to get a team to get behind an engineering project

by Jason Swett,

A client of mine recently asked: “What’s the best way to get a team behind a future refactor/architecture goal that hasn’t happened yet?”

This is a great question. Before I answer how to do this successfully, let me point out three certain ways to fail in this endeavor. Then I’ll share the key to giving an idea its best shot at success.

Three ways to fail to get a team behind an engineering project

The effort fails because the project was a genuinely bad idea

I mention this just to get the obvious out of the way: bad ideas often fail and they of course ought to fail. Even though this scenario isn’t necessarily a happy one, there’s nothing unjust about it.

The effort fails because it was “pearls before swine”

Sometimes you have a good idea but, for whatever reason, the team you’re in or the leadership you’re under is made up of the kind of people who are behind the times or (to be blunt) just plain not very smart.

In 2013 I worked somewhere where I tried to help implement continuous integration, but my boss was dead-set against it. There’s nothing I could have done to have been successful in this case because my boss just wasn’t the kind of person who “gets it”. The only “solution” to this problem was to go work somewhere else.

This scenario is regrettable but it’s futile to try to fight against it.

The effort fails because, although the idea was a good one, the methodology of persuasion was bad

Of the three ways to fail at getting a team to get behind an engineering effort, this one is the most tragic. I had a good idea, I had a receptive audience, but I bungled the pitch and so my idea got killed.

The key to making any project idea maximally enticing

Think about how interested you tend to be in implementing other people’s ideas. Then think about how interested you are in implementing your OWN ideas. If you’re like most people, you’re of course much more interested in your own ideas than other people’s.

So the key to making an idea enticing is: get your teammates (or bosses or subordinates) to believe that the idea is theirs.

This is easier said than done. I’ll describe two ways of accomplishing this.

How to get your teammates to believe that your ideas are their ideas

I know of two ways to get someone to think that an idea of mine is actually an idea of theirs: 1) use some sort of psychological manipulation to trick or 2) find an idea of theirs that actually, legitimately matches an idea of mine.

The latter method is of course going to be the more successful.

Here’s an example. Let’s say I want to try to get the team to increase test coverage on our application. One way I could go about this is by saying, “Hey guys! We need to increase our test coverage! We need to start this project ASAP!” This method isn’t likely to be very successful. Any attempt to “sell” an idea tends to be met with an equal resistance.

A better way to approach it would be to start by saying, “Hey guys, how do you feel about the quality of our codebase in general?” Then I would listen to my teammates’ responses and make sure they felt heard. (It’s easier to influence someone else if you first let them influence you.) Then I would ask, “How do you feel about our test coverage specifically?” If the whole team unanimously agreed that our test coverage was fine, I’d probably stop right there. It’s impossible to get someone to spend time fixing a problem they don’t believe exists.

But if my teammates expressed some level of dissatisfaction with our current test coverage, I would ask them to elaborate. I would take notes on what they said. I would ask if these problems strike them as worth fixing. Then I’d ask them if they’d be open to coming up with some goals together around test coverage and a plan to achieve those goals. People are much more supportive of goals and plans they were involved in creating than goals and plans someone else came up with.

Key takaways

Uncover existing desires. If you have a desire to accomplish X, ask probing questions of your teammates (or bosses or subordinates) to see if they also desire X. Position the project not as an endeavor to realize your desires, but to realize their desires.

Involve the team in the roadmapping. The team will be motivated to help accomplish the goal in proportion to how involved they were in developing the goal.

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