Seeing the Other Person’s Big Picture

©2000 Gerald M. Weinberg, www.geraldmweinberg.com

You’re entering a new situation, and you’re ready to gather the Big Picture of the other people involved. Whatever you do, don’t try the following process without first getting a Big Picture of yourself, as discussed in an earlier article. If you’re not personally centered, this whole process will sound hollow and even smarmy.

Which others’ Big Pictures? Well, who will the significant others be? Anybody I omit from this survey will potentially appear on stage at a critical juncture and spoil my best-laid plans. The people I usually have to consider are Dani, my wife and business partner; Sweetie and Ruby, my German Shepherd dogs and biggest supporters; Lois and Susie, my coworkers; other colleagues in my network, such as my PSL faculty colleagues; my customer, the one who’s going to pay my bills. In this column, however, I’ll focus on my clients, the ones I’m going to work with on this assignment.

I’ll look for the answers to the three Big Picture questions:

- How do they happen to be here? (Past)

- How do they feel about being here? (Present)

- What would they like to have happen? (Future)

How do they happen to be here? (Past)

When someone talks about past consultants, they’ve given me a free head start without my having to ask one of my “past” questions, such as,

Did Darlene choose to be here, or was she forced by me, or some other factor, like her boss?

What has been her past history on this job? What knowledge does she have that I can tap into? What prejudgments has she made about the nature of this task?

Has she had early personal or cultural experiences that might affect the way she works on this job? With me? These are not excuses for poor performance, but things I have to understand to work well with Darlene.

What’s been her past experience with me? With other contractors? What preconceptions does she bring to the table as a result of these experiences?

How do they feel about being here? (Present)

In this instance, I knew right away that this organization “had consultants before, but none of them made any difference.” Obviously, Darlene felt that this was an important thing to say, but I didn’t know why she brought this up so early in our relationship:

Does she have some reservations, or forebodings, about this assignment? About me? Does our doing this assignment conflict with something else she wants to do?

Is she eager to be here? Is she looking forward to working with me on the task that I’ve agreed to do?

Is she clear about what’s going to be required of her if I take this assignment?

How’s her self-esteem? Does she feel able to control her situation and accomplish her personal goals, or does she feel powerless?

However she’s feeling, is hers the right mood for me to succeed in this job? If not, what steps can I take to help her get into the right mood?

I often seek this information by asking, “And what does that tell you about my tour of duty?” Here are some of the answers I’ve received from Darlene and other people, at other times:

Aaron:

You don’t have a chance, so I’m not going to waste any time helping you.

Bonnie:

You’re going to need my help if it’s going to turn out differently this time.

Carter:

It’s nothing personal, but this will be another of those management vision things, full of sound and fury and going nowhere.

Darlene:

I’m really excited, because you’re different from any of the consultants we’ve had before. This time, our consultant is really going to make things better around here.

Each of these answers is full of information, but I’m going to work differently with each of these people.

What would they like to have happen? (Future)

First, though, I have to know the answer to the third question, “What would you like to have happen?”

Why did X agree to work with me on this assignment? The experience? The challenge? Fear of the boss?

What will success look like, to X? Is it aligned with my success criteria? Did previous consultants solve problems that X failed to solve, thus making X look like a failure?

How long does X want me to be on this assignment? Will I be able to stay long enough to see it through? If the customer extends the project, will X be laughing or crying?

My responses

Assuming each of them genuinely hoped something would change, but knowing that each felt differently about my being here, I would construct different responses, perhaps as follows:

Aaron:

You don’t have a chance, so I’m not going to waste any time helping you.

Me:

I can understand your feeling. I’ll do my best not to waste any of your time, but if I should happen to come up with something that might save you some time, would you be interested in hearing about it?

——————————————————————————–

Bonnie:

You’re going to need my help if it’s going to turn out differently this time.

Me:

Great! What sort of help do you think you can give me?

——————————————————————————-

Carter:

It’s nothing personal, but this will be another of those management vision things, full of sound and fury and going nowhere.

Me:

Yes, I’ve sure seen my share of futile, grandiose projects. I personally think that big changes result from an accumulation of small changes. Would you be willing to work with me on some small thing that would help you in some way? Then we could see if we’re wasting our time, or if things might be different this time.

——————————————————————————–

Darlene:

I’m really excited, because you’re different from any of the consultants we’ve had before. This time, our consultant is really going to make things better around here.

Me:

I’m flattered. Thank you. In what way do you think I’m different from the others, and why do you think that will help?

As a result of learning their Big Picture, I’m no longer knocked off balance. Instead, I’m well centered and already beginning to create a method of working appropriately with each of my clients.

Question and answer

Q: How do you come up with such responses in real time? They make sense when I read them, but in the moment, I often go blank.

A: There’s a pattern, but it won’t work if you think it’s a formula. You must remain creative in order to fill in the pattern, so the first thing you must always do is center yourself. Then, find a way to connect with the emotional content of what they’re saying, relating your own emotional state to theirs. Only then can you proceed to the content — what they want to have happen, and you might do next to move toward what they want.

About Gerald M. Weinberg

For more than 50 years, Jerry (Gerald M.) Weinberg has worked on transforming software organizations. He is author or co-author of many articles and books, including The Psychology of Computer Programming. His books cover all phases of the software life-cycle. They include Exploring Requirements, Rethinking Systems Analysis and Design, The Handbook of Walkthroughs, Inspections, and Technical Reviews, and General Principles of System Design. His books on leadership include Becoming a Technical Leader, The Secrets of Consulting, More Secrets of Consulting, and the Quality Software Management four-volume series. His book, Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method, appeared in 2005. His first techno-thriller novel, The Aremac Project (Dorset House), will appear in 2007. Email Jerry or visit www.geraldmweinberg.com to read excerpts of the Shape Forum. Picture (c)2004 Steven M. Smith
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