Back in January, I had the opportunity to sit in on a stop of the Bob Woodward speaking tour. (Bob Woodward of: Woodward/Bernstein/Washington Post/Watergate/Nixon.) Mr. Woodward ended his speaking hour with a little story on the biggest lesson he learned from the whole Watergate experience. Bob told the audience how he learned of President Nixon’s resignation, and how, only a few months later, he learned that Nixon’s successor, President Ford, had pardoned him.
Both Bob and his partner, Carl Bernstein, were crestfallen. They had sacrificed years of their lives investigating the biggest scandal in U.S. history, ultimately bringing down a sitting president. They both believed that more backroom politicking had occurred, and now Nixon was going to walk free in return for handing Ford the presidency.
Years passed, and Bob interviewed and spoke with Ford several more times. Right before Ford’s death some 30 years after Watergate, Ford revealed to Bob that Bob had never asked him if Nixon’s men had approached him prior to the resignation about a pardon in exchange for the presidency. (Bob explained to the audience that he assumed this was the case.) Ford admitted that they had. Bob exclaimed in his head, “Aha! I knew it! Vindication!” Ford finished his sentence, “I turned them down. I knew Nixon was finished as president. They were negotiating a losing hand.”
As for why Ford pardoned Nixon, I’ll let you research for yourselves. It’s a fascinating piece of U.S. history and a textbook case of political suicide. So… why am I bringing all of this up in a THWACK blog? Here’s why. If there is ever an example of an SME, or subject matter expert, it’s Bob Woodward and the Watergate scandal. He and Carl Bernstein lived, breathed, ate, and slept Watergate for over 30 years, long after it was over. And as to why he assumed that Ford pardoned Nixon, his knowledge and expertise was his undoing. His assumptions and suspicions poisoned his critical thinking skills for 30 years. Bob spent those 30 years convinced that Nixon’s team and Ford were in cahoots on some levels.
I’m surrounded by some very talented IT professionals and have been for the past 27 years. What I’ve done for the past 20 years, ever since I gave up the technical path, is lead these technical professionals working in a manager role, incident response, a war room, and projects. I’ve seen countless examples of where the best and smartest experts and engineers are firmly convinced that solution A, or “this” path to resolution, was the right answer and be firm about it—so convinced on their decision that whether it be professional reputation or stubbornness, they are adamant even when there are clues to state otherwise.
As a leader, this can be challenging. Pray that you never find yourself in the situation where you have two or more experts with differing, passionate opinions and are expected to make the decisions on whose opinion to follow. So, what are you to do in these tense situations? How do you work with a “Bob Woodward”-type personality?
When it comes to diffusing situations like these and (hopefully) gaining consensus, I’ve got some tips I’ve used throughout my career that can help ease heated discussions compromised of headstrong personalities.
- Food! The tighter the tension, the better the food should be. Good food is perhaps the best tension breaker. If the hours are long, or you’re working on weekends or on a very tight deadline with high visibility, don’t order the team pizza (unless they all agree on pizza). Splurge a little and bring in catering, with the nice thick paper plates, fancy plastic silverware, and absorbent napkins. The team will feel appreciated and much more refreshed. They will convene with a fresh perspective, and you’ll come out being the good guy. A tough decision will land softer.
- Changing subjects, even to the point of talking about something that isn’t related to the task at hand. How’s the weather? How’s that local sports team performing? Who saw that show last night? Who’s following the latest trends on Twitter? Changing the topic to get people to break their concentration and hard-set thought patterns is a sensible approach when the team is in a rut. As a leader, keep an eye out for those who keep their nose in their laptop and don’t engage in the lighthearted banter. They either refuse to budge on their opinions or are onto something that could be dangerous to the collaborative nature.
- Taking breaks, even if it’s a simple adjournment for 15 minutes. Surprisingly, this is often neglected in war rooms and incident response teams. Keep in mind that you don’t have to dismiss them all at once. You can stagger them in intervals. Once again, keep an eye out for those who refuse to leave. We leaders refer to them as “martyrs.” Martyrs can be dangerous, as they tend to be the first to crack. They are first to get snippy, overly-opinionated, uncooperative, and a morale killer. In worst cases, they have the potential to be HR write-ups. And then you come out looking like the bad guy.
- Play dumb! This is my personal favorite. I often refer to myself as the dumbest person in our IT (because most times it’s true). I use this to my advantage when I need to challenge an expert on his/her opinion. The expert then must break their opinion down to a level that I can understand. That allows me to ask “stupid” (aka “leading”) questions and manipulate the conversation to get the expert to try another way of thinking. During my 27 years in IT, I have learned that technology has changed, but human behavior is basically the same.
There are certainly other tactics to use, and I would love to hear your favorites as well as how and when you use them in the comments section below.
Also, given that many of us in the THWACK community are the technical experts, I must ask, have you ever found yourself to be so unwaveringly convinced of something IT related only to find out later that you were wrong? What was it? Did you ever admit you were wrong? Why or why not?
Finally, I'll leave you with a little bit of trivia on President Ford that you may not know. He is the only person to have served as vice president and U.S. president having never been elected to either office.