Getting Real About Meetings and "Politics"
To Create Change, Software Practitioners Must See Past Their Biases Regarding These Two Much Maligned Practices
Improving software within our organizations is something that we can't do alone. Positive change for anything but the most minor or trivial case will involve influencing our peers. Many technically-inclined folks, however, fear the meetings and politics they assume will follow.
Are increased meetings and the specter of politics actually a barrier to getting better? Or do we use these boogiemen to rationalize our inaction? Let's break down each of these individually to find out.
BAD MEETINGS DON’T INVALIDATE MEETINGS; THEY CHALLENGE US TO DO BETTER
Unfortunately, we've all had meetings that "could have been an email". Research shows that meetings have increased in length and frequency over the past 50 years. Further, Inc. reports that $25 million is blown daily on unproductive meetings in the U.S. (translating to $37 billion annually).
That doesn't mean meetings are the problem, however. Instead, it is a condemnation of our ability to conduct them well. Meetings can be made useful, even enjoyable, with the right effort. Even engineers will gladly take a meeting if they perceive it as a good use of their time. Said another way, we don't have a meeting problem; we have an effectiveness problem.
Meetings are real work, not the thing that keeps us from getting "real work" done. As far as automation has taken us, change requires other people, which will require "getting time on their calendar". The sooner we stop treating meetings as distractions and begin learning to make them more effective, the sooner we can begin change.
POLITICAL HORROR STORIES HAVE SPOOKED US AND NOW WE CAN’T SEE THE FOREST FOR THE TREES
Just as we've all suffered a poorly executed meeting, I'm sure we have also suffered organizational politics. Niven Postma is a corporate strategist. In her workshops, she asks attendees to describe workplace politics. Ninety-nine percent of the words volunteered are negative:
"'Toxic,' 'frustrating,' 'dangerous,' 'demotivating,' 'draining,' 'unfair,' 'unnecessary,' 'cliques,' and 'gossip' almost always rise to the surface. Last week, an employee used the word 'heart-breaking.'"
Most of us self-identify as being good people. It is no wonder that, as good people, we'd want to avoid engaging with something described so negatively. Further, for programmers, engaging in this messy, seemingly opaque process is antithetical to the predictable, rational, and mathematically "clean" software values they've come to identify with strongly.
Politics is not inherently bad. We don't refer to healthy conflict resolution or constructive reconciliation of competing concerns, for example, as politics, although it is. Yet, by piling all informal activities with the same derision we apply to destructive or unethical manipulation, we obscure the path toward more productive discourse: the range of ethical and beneficial exercises that strengthen relationships, expand influence, and rally coalitions of like-minded supporters for change.
"The question is not whether organizations will have politics but rather what kind of politics they will have." - Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership
TECHNICAL PEOPLE CAN INFLUENCE CHANGE - If They Apply The Tools At Hand
The skills that technically-inclined people perform every day - identifying problems, gathering information, evaluating options, and iteratively testing solutions - can be applied to systems other than code. We must stop avoiding change efforts because it might mean more meetings and, instead, start practicing how to make them effective. We need to stop dismissing politics as beneath us and, instead, engage with the ethical tools we've chosen, thus far, to ignore.
If your test coverage sucks, you don’t say, "Well, I guess testing isn't for us!". No, instead, you work to figure out how to make things better! Technical people can be influential leaders. Making our software better depends on it.
Thanks for reading Better Bits! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.