by Fabian Sautier — 21 September 2016
I hear it all too often and have experienced it myself for many years: a lot of companies, especially big ones, run their employees’ work through a verticalized, highly bureaucratic validation process. This means a junior employee will have to present his or her work to his boss (n+1) for validation, who will then decide, plainly spoken, whether it’s “good or not”, meaning concretely whether he believes it’s good enough to be presented it to the next level of hierarchy (n+2) for their validation and so on.
In these organizations decision-making authority is regularly based on the level of hierarchy, not on the level of expertise, although lower-hierarchy employees are often more experts on their subjects than … the boss of their bosses’ boss.
As you can understand this vertical validation process can quickly become very frustrating and time-consuming for us young employees. Frustrating because we lose the power over the ideas and convictions we express through our work and because we need to constantly adjust or even start from scratch. Time-consuming because there are multiple layers of hierarchy to get validation from, meaning projects can be stuck in that cycle for months before finally being accepted and they can move on.
It is therefore, for your personal well-being and satisfaction, of the utmost importance to develop strategies that will get your direct superior to validate your work quickly. Throughout my young career I have been exposed to dozens of bosses, have had hundreds of “validation meetings” and here is the 3-step approach I like to use to earn a quick “good to go”.
1. Become aware of your boss’s manager self-conception (=what he believes is his role as a manager who gives feedback). Put yourself into your boss’s shoes for a moment. Imagine a team member (i.e. you) coming over and asking to show a the advancement of a project for validation. Depending on your (remember, you are the manager) level of seniority and self-confidence you can react in three different manners (these are the three archetypes that I have come across in my career, they are probably not exhaustive):
a) You will give useful macro-level advice, add perspective to the project, reframe it in a bigger context, outline possible next steps and make a few practical suggestions based on your prior experience.
b) You take a quick look at the work, but know that usually your co-worker delivers great work. You know that you can spend your time doing more productive things than reviewing the whole project.
c) You ask your co-worker to explain everything in detail and you question every step of the project. You want to understand why your co-worker did what he did (to make sure he made the right choices), and what his assumptions and conclusions are. Without realizing, you are basically redoing the whole work in her place.
Any of those reactions sound familiar? Now jump back into your real role and let’s understand what has been going on here.
2. Understand the underlying personality traits & needs of your boss that make him react and feedback in a certain way.
Manager a) is probably the boss you love. He seems to be experienced or at least comfortable in his role. He has a clear vision of his responsibilities (guidance and perspective) versus his team’s responsibilities (project ownership, idea generation and execution). He has confidence in his skills, knows what he can and has to bring on the table and looks to make his team grow. He’s not working in competition with his team, but he’s collaborating for the greater success of the project. He wants and needs you to succeed, and will want to be judged by the success and evolution of his team.
Manager b) seems to attribute more importance to his own projects than to the ones of his team. He is probably quite ambitious and believes he will achieve his goals faster when demonstrating quality work himself instead of coaching and pushing the work of is team. He trusts that your work is of sufficient quality and therefore estimates he does not have to question what you did too much. He does not define his success through his team’s success, but more on his individual level.
If your manager falls into the types types a) or b) getting quick, at least partial, validation and moving your project forward should usually be rather straightforward.
Manager c) is the complicated one. It is important to understand what makes him question everything and x-ray your project. The most current underlying reasons are:
It is vital to understand the underlying psychological motives of your boss, because it will give you the power use them in your favor.
3. Hack your boss: anticipate and act upon the underlying feedback motives to turn them to your advantage. Once you understand why your manager feedbacks in a certain way, you can tailor the way you present your work in a way that will lead to positive outcome for you.
Let’s take the manager who needs reassurance. You won’t be able to sell him your project unless he feels the risk of the project failing is minimized and the chance of n+2 validating is maximized. So the best way to hack the “unsure boss” is to:
Let’s now look at the managers in need of authority or superiority. Remember, they need to feel like he is on control, either because they want to be recognized as “the boss” or as “the exceptional employee”. Here is the one hacking technique that I have used dozens of times and that works great for both manager types: always present two options of your project to your boss.
While this sounds counterintuitive and inefficient at first glance, strategizing this approach makes it tremendously effective. Here is how to do it:
Let me give you a concrete example when I went through this process. At some point I worked in product development for a big multinational company (with multiple levels of validation). One of my projects was to develop a new flacon for a soon to be launched cosmetic product.
I had decided for myself that my top priority was to have this flacon made of glass and not of plastic. I wanted it to feel heavy and precious in the hand of the consumer, so using glass was the one thing I did not want to compromise on.
Therefore, I was ok to compromise on the exact shape of the flacon, to me this was secondary to the material it was made of (there are nor right or wrong priorities in this process, it is only about what is important to you, because pushing through your priorities will eventually make you feel happier and more motivated at work). Of course, I still cared about the shape, and I had a clear idea of the perfect shape in my head, but I would not make this my priority battle.
So I worked on two different shapes for my flacon, one more sleeky cylindrical, one in a more square form. While they both matched the product story, they looked significantly different. When I presented the new flacon project to my manager, I deliberately chose to have the different shapes printed and discuss the options around the printouts.
That way I could avoid getting into the discussion of the material, because the shapes were printed on paper. I explained how I had come up those shapes, why I liked them and finally which one I preferred. Of course, my manager asked me to work in a third version, which would be as sleeky as option 1, but square as option 2. I managed to avoid discussion the question of material, I briefly threw it in at some point, but not as “open for discussion”.
When I went to see him again with the new version, I decided to not print it this time. I had a prototype of real glass built, so that we could experience in 3D what the flacon would look and feel like. The weight and touch of the glass made it obvious that this flacon had to be made of glass. I felt content, while my boss loved “his” third shape version so that we could take this project to n+2 for final validation.
While I agree that it is somewhat sad that employees have to invest time into thinking about how to manipulate their managers into validation, the time saved by being able to move forward quickly afterwards is a return that’s worth the effort. If your boss does not manage you, you need to manage your boss. And taking your destiny into your own hands is always better than have an incompetent n+1 do it for you.
What is your perspective on project validation? Do you have developed any tactics to move forward more quickly? We would love to hear what you have to say in the comment section below.
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