Innovating While “Waiting for Dell”

Every day, people ask me questions about the pending Dell and EMC deal. Customers wonder about the support they’ll get, product roadmaps, and the future of the EMC brand. Employees inquire about their benefits, jobs, and the goals of Dell-EMC. My kids want to know if there will still be free M&Ms in the office. When people face huge organizational changes (e.g. acquisitions, executive changes, activist board members, new strategic directions, restructuring, etc.), it’s easy to find teams waiting for things to “settle down” before they get back to work.

All those questions lead to the one big question – “How do you make things happen when your organization is ‘Waiting for X’?”

Why do people and groups fall into the “Waiting for X” trap? The reasons are usually either self-preservation or a desire to be productive. Business leaders want to polish their apple (does anybody actually polish apples anymore?) so that their area is seen in the best possible light. They focus on optimizing execution, managing costs, and increasing short-term revenue. While all good goals, taken to the extreme, they compromise cross-organizational work, investment in the future, and risk-taking. Meanwhile, engineers look at the coming uncertainty and focus on short-term projects they can control. After all, who wants to invest months of effort into a complex, cross-organizational project with even lower-than-usual chance of success? We all got into this business to build tools that solve customers’ problems; in times of chaos, it makes sense to do little projects. The result is that both business and engineering leaders become conservative.

Unfortunately “Waiting for X” frustrates teams who drive cross-product integration and innovation. Most normal reactions just make the situation worse. Some groups just keep doing the same thing, just ignoring the constant string of failures. Some choose to get obnoxious – escalating every issue to senior management, disparaging their peers, or trying to subvert every decision that the teams make. Others just shut down and wait. None of these are the right answer.

How do you drive significant change during these “Waiting for X” periods? Step 1: Accept that you usually don’t. Steven Jay Gould theorized that evolution is not a constant, gradual process, but one that punctuated by infrequent, dramatic changes. While I can’t assess the theory’s validity for biology, it absolutely applies to large companies. If you want to drive significant change, most of your time will be spent marshalling your forces and waiting for the right time. “Waiting for X” eras are times to prepare.

How can innovators best use the “Waiting for X” time to prepare? First, polish your own apples. By addressing any lingering technical debt for you or your group (outstanding bugs, half-completed projects, skill set gaps), you’ll be ready when the time is right. Second, and most important, help polish other people’s apples. Sure, you might not love helping troubleshoot, bug fix, test, or deliver small features, but that’s part of why it’s so important. Not only are you building up credibility with the other groups that you know their product and their pain, but they know you’re sacrificing for them. As a result, they’ll not only like you more, but they’ll feel a sense of obligation to you. This is the time to build up credibility and favors, because you’ll need mountains of both when you drive the big project. Finally, start to explore and socialize the big decisions. Even if nobody is ready to sign up for a complex, disruptive project, most will be interested in discussing and understanding it. After all, the other reason we became engineers is to tackle cool, challenging technical problems.

The result? You have a group that is well respected and trusted. You have the groundwork laid for big decisions. And everybody owes you a favor. Once the “Wait for X” period has passed, you’re ready to take advantage of the small window of opportunity and make things happen before the next “Wait for X” comes along.

Big changes that freeze large organizations seem to be happening more than ever. If you want to make something big happen, it’s not enough to have good ideas, smart people, and a strong work ethic. You have to understand timing and organizational behaviors (some of you would call it politics – if it is, so be it; I’d rather play the politics well than fail by running into a brick wall) and wait for your moment. “Waiting for X” periods can be an excellent time to plan your next move… if you are willing to plan.

In the next installments, I’ll cover some of my successes and failures in these approaches. And, yes, the failures are much, much funnier.

Stephen Manley @makitadremel

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