A Powerful Strategy for Implementing a New and Controversial Idea

Cross-functional collaboration
Product
Internal Communication
Convincing
Ownership

11 May, 2020

Wayne Haber, Director of Engineering at GitLab, shares his powerful strategy for implementing a new idea that emphasizes the importance of asking Why and garnering cross-functional support for the idea.

Problem

At a previous employer, some of the tools developers were using were only accessible on the company’s Virtual Private Network (VPN) or when physically present in the office. I came up with an idea to make some of those tools available from the Internet with appropriate security including multi-factor authentication and data leakage protection. When discussed previously numerous times over the years, this idea was rejected by a number of people and many were skeptical about being to accomplish it. There were concerns not only about security but also about what the productivity improvement and morale improvements would be (and if they were worth it). But I didn’t let that stop me as my intuition told me the security risks could be handled and the productivity and morale improvements would be quite high!
 

Actions Taken

I started implementing my strategy with two things in mind: Don’t take no for an answer and instead ask Why: When I was told that I couldn’t do it for security reasons, I would ask what the security reasons were. For example, I was told that we could lose control of some data classified as company confidential, but the system that the developers wanted to use didn’t include any of that information. After getting back and forth -- asking what about this/what about that -- and going into all the details we would reach the final Why. More importantly, my questioning provided people with more information about the project and I managed to potentially move forward on it with various sub-requirements.
 

Asking people for their feedback and getting them on board: Their feedback will not only provide you with great information but often they will become part of the team helping to solve issues and even owning the idea themselves. Many people who were opposed to my idea, became part of the team instead of just being experts advising the team. Gradually, many different people across the organization joined in becoming the staunch proponents of the idea.
 

Eventually, it went beyond being my project and my initiative. It evolved into a cross-functional team and none of the people who implemented the idea reported to any of my teams. It involved four different teams across four different VPs at the company. This project had zero official support as a priority. All the VPs were receptive as long as it didn’t interrupt any other projects. We worked collaboratively via instant messager and once a week we would have a synchronous discussion talking through details and demonstrating achievements and challenges. We were able to make progress on it over about two months, launch it, and see significant improvements to productivity. In addition, morale was measurably improved across the company. We were pleasantly surprised to find that there were people who we never thought would benefit from it came out of the woodwork to say how much they loved the project and how happy they would be to help iteratively improve it. It was successful far beyond what we expected!
 

Lessons learned

  • Don’t take no for an answer! When you ask Why -- actively listen, be prepared to empathize and research all the details. Don’t stop on an initiative because the reasons you are given are We tried this before and failed or We asked permission for this before and it would not be approved. Don’t be dismayed by those things, because this is where the real innovation happens -- when you hear that something is impossible.
  • Be openly passionate about the project and empathic about the people who could potentially support, contribute, and benefit your project.

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