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Chances are your biggest problem isn't technical at all

Right now someone's running a failing project to build a payroll system. Probably more than one someone.

Why? Was it because they chose Ruby over Java, or Python over Smalltalk? Or because they decided to use Postgres rather than Oracle? Or did they choose Windows when they should have chosen Linux? We've all seen the technology take the fall for failed projects. But what are the chances that the problem was really so difficult to solve that Java/C++/C#/Smalltalk/Python/etc. wasn't up the task?

Most projects are built by people, and those people are the foundation for success and failure. So, it pays to think about building systems that help make those people successful.

Equally, there's a good chance that there's someone who's "just not doing it right" and is undermining the project. In these cases, the solution is not technology; your problem is significantly older better established than any of the technologies in your project. I'm talking about having a good conversation.

Learning how to approach difficult conversations about important issues, is one of the core skills that turn a smart architect into an effective architect.

A couple of things I've learned along the way that improved my effectiveness:

1) Approach these events as conversations -- not confrontations.

If you assume the best about people and treat the conversation as a way to ask questions you definitely learn more, and you are less likely to put people on the defensive. I once heard some advice that changed my life. Stop treating resistance as something to overcome, think of it instead as a signal that you've got something to learn about the situation. People generally resist for a reason.

2) Approach these conversations only after you've got your attitude right.

If you're angry, frustrated, annoyed, or otherwise flustered it’s very likely that the other person will interpret your non-verbals as indicating that you're on the attack. This will trigger instinctive defensive behavior, at which point you'll push more, and that's all kinds of bad.

3) Use these as opportunities to set mutually agreed upon goals.

Instead of telling a developer that they need to be quiet in meetings because they never let anybody speak, ask if they can help you increase other people's participation. Explain that some people are more introverted and need longer silences before they jump into a conversation, and ask if they will help you out by waiting 5 seconds before jumping in.

I've found that if I start with a shared purpose, treat people "problems" as an opportunity to learn, and manage your own emotions, I'm not only more effective, I also learn a lot of new and useful things. Oh, and people like me more. Those conversation things are surprisingly effective technology.

By Mark Ramm

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3

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