Software leadership: Do things the hard way

Effecting change can be one of the greatest challenges you’ll face as a team leader, but the results can be worth the effort.

Ryan Haveson

Why you should ask people to do things the hard way? Suppose someone came to you and told you that instead of doing your job the way you do it today, you should do it a different way. On top of that, suppose they told you the new way would be more difficult.

The logical reaction would be to resist that change. This is a sane, natural reaction. Most of the time, making a transition within an organization to do things in a better, more efficient way actually requires people to do more work in the short term.

To get to the point where the new way of doing things pays off in terms of effort requires getting over “the hump” of extra work (see Figure 1). Most people feel overworked as it is, and getting them over the hump is essentially asking them to do more—even if only for a short while.

Once you and your team get through the extra work of a new process, it’s smooth sailing.

Figure 1 Once you and your team get through the extra work of a new process, it’s smooth sailing.

If you’re trying to champion a new way of doing things within your organization and you’re having problems getting people to enthusiastically participate, think of the diagram in Figure 1. You need to try to figure out ways to get people over the hump. Here are some techniques to consider.

Be clear about the goal

Many times people see change as something that happens to them, like a tax they have to pay because it’s required. This can make it difficult to get people to enthusiastically participate. If they don’t understand why the net result of the changes will be beneficial to them, it will be hard to get any buy-in at all.

Time spent clarifying the goal has another reward: this extra burden of proof will help you focus and refine your objective. The more clear the objective is, the easier it is to align it and fine-tune it to maximize the impact and benefit.

Meet face-to-face first

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Furthermore, if the horse isn’t thirsty or only drinks whiskey, then your effort to bring him to water is wasted. In a fast-paced, e-mail-driven working environment, it’s tempting to try to work things out online. You may have an exciting idea for how to do things better, write up a proposal and send it around in e-mail as a way to try to get buy-in.

When trying to drive change, it’s important to realize that you’re not talking about business as usual. You’re asking people to do more than just their day job. You’re asking them to do extra work to get over the hump.

You’ll invariably have much better luck with this type of discussion following a face-to-face sit-down. Make it clear you understand this will be extra work in the short term in order to get to the better place. The goodwill implied by your going the extra mile to do a face-to-face sit-down will help generate buy-in. You’ll also get a more direct line of feedback in case there are criticisms of your proposal that people are reluctant to put in e-mail.

Remember UI matters

Remember how much harder it was to drive a car when you were first learning? Over time, the mechanics of driving become automatic and virtually effortless. A big part of the cost of change is the cognitive overload people experience while learning the mechanics of a new way of doing things.

One way to minimize that inevitable cognitive overload is to think through the obstacles and challenges people will face with the new way of doing things. Then come up with ways to make it easier to navigate. Essentially this is lowering the size of the hump.

The UX principles posted by the Microsoft Windows team are a great reference on some key things to consider in these types of situations. These were written to help guide UX designs, but they apply pretty well to design or organizational changes, too. The key is to keep things simple and clear, and reduce ambiguities.

Champion change

Change is difficult, and can be perceived as bad. However, change can help us do things more efficiently and more effectively. Being a champion for change can be exciting, but remember the cost of change is often paid by people just trying to do their jobs. And these people are generally happy with the status quo.

Bringing enthusiasm and vision to your organization around better ways of doing things is a good first step. You must remember to be sensitive to the fact that you’re asking people to do things the hard way for a while. Be sure to plan mitigations to make the transition as painless as possible.

Ryan Haveson

Ryan Haveson has more than 15 years of experience leading engineering teams and delivering software and services for some of the world’s most recognized brands, including Xbox and Windows. He was a group manager in the Windows Experience team for Windows 8. He and his team designed and delivered end-user and developer-facing features, including the live tile notifications platform and the new Task Manager. He’s currently leading the engineering systems group at Qualcomm Inc. for the Windows/Windows Phone on Snapdragon division in sunny San Diego. Reach him at or at