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Controlling your boss for fun and profit

 There’s a great gesture you can do to show just how little you care about someone who is wallowing in self-pity. You lightly rub the tips of your thumb and forefinger together saying, “This is the world’s smallest violin playing, ‘My Heart Cries for You.’”

That’s how I feel when people complain about their helplessness in the face of the seemingly invincible power of their manager. “Oh, management will never give us the time to improve our build or change our practices.” “I wish our manager took this training. That’s the only way we’d ever take up inspections. (See Review this—Inspections.)” “I’m really uncomfortable with our product’s current direction and group’s organization, but there’s nothing I can do.”

Grow up, you weenies. Based on your pathetic excuses for inaction, nothing would ever get done. Don’t you think your bosses say the same thing regarding their bosses? If you don’t make desired change happen, it doesn’t happen. Period. The difference between you and someone powerful is not your level of control; it’s your willingness to act.

I have no hand

“Yeah, but my boss won’t listen to me,” is the common retort. “She has all these reasons why we can’t change.” Well, good. At least you’ve made the transition from being pathetic to being ignorant. You’re trying to do something about your situation; you’re just inept. Relax, most people are.

Unfortunately, influencing without authority rarely comes naturally; it is an acquired skill. When trying to enact a solution, most people jump right in. They go straight to their bosses with their idea, only to get shot down. Sometimes people even do a tremendous amount of preparation, writing a long white paper or presentation, only to be summarily rejected.

What you may not understand is how to prepare appropriately, how to present your idea effectively, and how to get your idea enacted. Let’s break it down.

Eric Aside

I gave an internal talk on this topic. Registration filled in minutes. The moral: many people want to know more about influence without authority.

Know the enemy and know yourself

Start with appropriate preparation. I’m going to list a bunch of steps, but they can all be done in less than a day (minutes for small issues).

First you need to scout the landscape. Only fools walk into a minefield without a map. Most people know how they want things to be, but that’s an endpoint, not directions to get there.

  • Understand your proposal. What is risky about your idea, and how do you mitigate the risks? What can change about your idea, and what are the core principles you can’t compromise? Be realistic and honest with yourself.
  • Understand your history. What were the reasons for your current processes and organization? Could you regress by changing them?
  • Understand your enemies. Who prefers the current state and why? Are any of them strong enough or passionate enough to make change difficult? How would you placate them or even draw them to your side?
  • Understand your friends. Who is unhappy with the current state and why? Do they like your idea? How strong, considerable, and passionate is your body of support?
  • Understand your management. How is your management being measured or judged? What benefits would be worth the risk from your manager’s point of view? Can you increase the benefit to management or reduce the risk?

It sounds complicated, but if you have been paying attention to how your coworkers interact, you and a friend or two can scout the landscape in a candid short discussion. Talking to a few people is often necessary to unearth the history or understand the issues. Regardless, scouting is essential to success.

They succeed in adapting themselves

Now that you know what you’re up against, you need to adapt and refine your original idea accordingly:

  • Choose who to please, who to placate, and who to ignore. Sure, you want to please everyone, but sometimes it’s better to just make sure nobody gets upset and focus on the few you really need to make happy—like your boss. Some folks will be fine if you just keep them from harm. Others can be ignored if they follow whatever your boss decides or simply don’t care.
  • To please people, focus on the benefits in their terms and negate the risks. Use your scouting information to frame the benefits in ways that impress the key players. If your manager cares about efficiency, talk about productivity gains; customer satisfaction, talk about quality and connection; on-time commitments, talk about predictability and transparency. To negate risks, talk about backup plans, go/no-go decision points, redundancy, and/or clear prioritization.

Eric Aside

This is the negotiation step of removing threats and fulfilling needs I talked about in My way or the highway—Negotiation.

  • To placate people, neutralize whatever they find threatening. Use your scouting to uncover what’s scary. If it’s risks, negate them. If they have a competing solution, embed it and give them ample credit and the limelight (“It’s our idea”). If they have extra requirements, satisfy them either immediately or in the “next version.”

In the end, you’ll have a plan with a bunch of backers, no one will be apprehensive enough to fight it, and you’ll be aligned with what the key decision makers care about. Now you’re ready to present it.

Selling water to fish

Selling water to fish really isn’t that hard, assuming their credit is good. You simply need to show them what life is like without water. The same thing goes when you are driving for change. You need to frame the problem before you talk about your solution.

The focus is on the key players, usually management. In the same way you use your scouting information to frame benefits in key player terms, you frame the problems in terms that speak to key player concerns. This should be the first slide after the title in a very short deck.

A few important notes here:

  • Anything about you or your ambitions will poison the proposal. The proposal needs to be about the key players, the team, and the customers, not about you and your desires for fame, glory, or a high rating.
  • To target your presentation on the key players, you must slip inside their skin. Use their terms, talk about benefits to them, and address their concerns. While the solution may have been spawned by what you care about, the solution will belong to the team, not you. It will be owned by the key players, not you. You must leave your feelings out of it.

Eric Aside

Generally speaking, slipping inside the skin of key players and leaving your own feelings behind is the hardest step. It’s also incredibly important to success.

  • If you talk about the solution first, no one will care. If you skip over the problem, there is no impetus to change. If you talk about the solution and then the problem, people will fixate on the problem and forget your solution. Always start with the problem and then move on to talk about the solution.
  • You must keep your presentation short—very short. Change drives discussion and debate. The debate will expand to fill any allotted time. If you can’t get through your ideas in two or three slides, you’ll lose all sway over the argument.

Eyes on the prize

Your second and possibly third slides speak to your vision of the future state. The vision should be clear, concise, and practical. The goals should be clearly stated in terms of benefit to the key players. Simply put, you cannot reach a destination if you don’t know where you’re going.

You’ll likely have many more slides with all sorts of data and detail about your vision and proposal. You might even have a 30-page white paper. That material is important to document the basis for the change, but relegate supporting material to appendix slides and resource links. You must be crisp to be successful; everything else is there for reference only.

Your last slide addresses how you get from the current state to the future state, or how to reach your destination. There are only two sections to this slide:

  • The issues section, which addresses how risks and concerns are mitigated. It’s where to put your backup plans, go/no-go decision points, redundancy, and/or prioritization.
  • The next steps section, which addresses who does what and when. Too often people focus on what needs to be done and not enough on who will do it and when it will happen. Without specific people assigned and specific target dates, the change flounders.

That’s it: a title slide, problem statement, future state, and transition slide. Now you are prepared to bring your idea forward. For smaller ideas, you can do all this in an e-mail message, but the preparation is the same.

Eric Aside

A number of people doubted you could put all this information on three slides and asked me for an example. My best example was a Microsoft confidential proposal that put all the information on one slide. It had vertical and horizontal lines dividing the slide into four quadrants: problem (four bullets in the upper-left quadrant); solution (three bullets in the lower-left); issues (six bullets in the upper-right); and next steps (four bullets in the lower-right).


You are now ready to engage with the key players. There are dozens of ways to do this, and none is dramatically better than the others. Sometimes the landscape may suggest one approach over another. In general, there are three basic types of approach:

  • Talk to key players one at a time. This works well when the key players don’t get along or each has different key issues. It’s more time-consuming, but it’s usually a safe and effective approach.
  • Meet with the key players together. This works well to build consensus and bring out hidden issues. It’s also a bit faster, but it works best if some consensus already exists about the problem and the issues. If necessary you can start with the first approach to gain that initial consensus, and then seal the deal with a meeting.
  • Target only the top player. This works well when the top player is particularly strong or the organization is particularly compliant. Use this approach when no one really matters but the top player.

Go through your deck and be prepared to own the process you’ve created. Remember that it’s not about you—it’s about the team, the product, and the customer. Let people discuss and debate as much as they want, as long as they stay focused on the problem you identified. If new issues or risks arise, be sure to note them and devise mitigations.

Dare to dream

This whole process may seem like a great deal of trouble, especially when there’s no guarantee your solution will survive, let alone thrive. You may feel that it’s not worth it; that the status quo is acceptable or at least tolerable. Maybe that’s true, or maybe you’re spineless.

Just don’t start complaining about how powerless you are or how management won’t listen to you and doesn’t care. If the current state is acceptable, then accept it and move on. If it isn’t, then do something about it. Regardless of what happens, you will drive awareness of the problem and likely cause change. In addition, you’ll gain leadership experience and perhaps even gain leadership responsibility. In the end, you will become more powerful by matching your willingness to act with the courage to focus on your team instead of yourself.

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  1. Joe Chung Joe Chung

    You can distill this down to "figure out why your manager said no and then do something about that."

  2. Wang Chung Wang Chung

    This is great advice.  I’m stuck in this exact situation at work right now.  My peers and I are somewhere between action and whining right now.  Enough whining!

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