How Do You Get Things Done When You’re Not the Boss?
I deal all the time with people in organizations who are trying to get things done without the direct authority to ‘order’ people to do it. These are people who sit in one organization who need the cooperation of people in another organization. These are Senior Executives who need their peers’ cooperation to accomplish their own division’s goals. These are Project Managers who need business leaders or other project leaders to do things before they can deliver their own project goals. These are entry level people who need the collaboration of more senior people. Back in the day when we all worked in purely hierarchical organizations, this is the way it worked:
The person who needs something from another person in an organization asks his boss, who asks her boss, to asks his peer, who tells her subordinate, who tells his subordinate and it gets done, unless there is a dispute. If there is a dispute, it reverses and goes back up and back down, then back up and down. Usually many days, or even weeks have transpired before the original need gets fulfilled. This is a pretty inefficient way of getting things done, unless everyone is completely committed to moving things fast.
Organizations today are less hierarchical, flatter and more networked. In an ideal world, this is the way things would work:
Being able to get things done this way depends on RELATIONSHIPS, trust, communication, urgency, political savvy, persuasiveness, and understanding organizational economics. Being able to do this can make the difference between being stellar standout and being stuck in your position.
It is who you know, who knows you and how much they care about you. You need to have relationships–friendly, bi-directional relationships that are mutually win-win. It is not about rank and power so much as about knowledge and cooperation. If you look at the picture above, if the people at the bottom of the organization know how to help you AND ARE WILLING, then you get as much done as if you boss’ boss talks to their boss’ boss. People will generally do something for you if there is no skin off their nose AND if they see it as beneficial. They generally see it as beneficial if you have at some time in the past done something for them, or if they think that that is likely to happen in the future. Do things for people throughout the organization without requiring return,and eventually, you will get significant return from it.
If people trust you, then they are likely to help you whether or not you have the authority to “make” them do something. People don’t have to trust you with their life, but they have to trust you not to sabotage them in some way, to stand up for them if necessary (after all they may be technically breaking a rule by doing something without appropriate hierarchical authority), and to reciprocate if they need something. For more on creating trust, read Trust Me, Damn It! Ironically, sometimes asking for something helps improve a relationship and builds trust. Ask for what you need–don’t be afraid.
The best way to get help from people who aren’t in your organization is to explain WHY you need what you need. If they can understand the context of your request, if you can make it real for them, then they are much more likely to go along–especially if there is little to no risk to them. If there is risk to them–to their own deliverables, to the schedule they’re supposed to hit, to their relationship with their peers or their boss–then your communication needs to be much more compelling. You need to be clear about what is in it for them to help you that overcomes those risks?
Unless you have a well established relationship–and even then, think twice–do not make these requests via email. Email is too easy to ignore, to hard to be clear and too hard to be persuasive. Talk in person (preferable) or by phone. It is better to have worked on these relationships before you need them, but even so, be friendly and interested BEFORE you make your request.
If people believe that what is needed is needed quickly or else important things will be slowed down or blocked, they are more likely to do it than if they feel no urgency. Creating a sense of urgency must be done carefully, lest you get a reputation of “crying wolf,” and lose your credibility. Why do you need what you need quickly? Be honest, but also believe what you’re saying. Speak with urgency and you’ll likely convey urgency.
In order to successfully get things done in your organization, you need to understand the politics in the organization. Who has the power? What relationships exist across your organization. What are the rivalries? Who is the ‘core’ group in each organization that you work in and around? In other words, who are the three or four people who make the decisions? Who do they listen to? Who can help you get the decision/resources/help you need go your way? Are there hidden agendas? What are they? How does what you need to do fit into those agendas? Whose agenda is supported by what you’re trying to do? Whose agenda isn’t? Trying to get things done in an organization without understanding these things is like driving on a road you know nothing about–where it goes, whether it dead ends, how fast you can go, whether there are any gas stations along the way.
Being persuasive is a critical skill for getting things done in organizations. There is no tool that is more valuable. Being persuasive begins with understanding the other person’s issues with regard to your argument, and then finding a way to reduce or overcome them by helping the person see very clearly WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) about what your trying to get done. Provide a context that helps the person be persuaded. A great book to help you learn to be more persuasive is Robert Cialdini’s, Influence. the Art of Persuasion.
One of the biggest secrets in organizations is that people at all levels of the organization can get things done across the organization. The most important step is to Do It. Figure out who can help you. Figure out what is important to them. Figure out how to approach and persuade them. Then ask. Don’t give up. If one way doesn’t work, try another. Keep taking routes till you find one that works. Make positive relationships along the way and PAY PEOPLE BACK. Go for it!