Apple’s people told Steve Jobs the new iPhone had antenna problems that needed fixing. They didn’t get through, though, and as a result Apple brought a faulty product to market. It’s hard to disagree with the boss, especially a hard-driving, charismatic one like Jobs. But it’s part of a manager’s responsibility to push back against a decision, a plan or a directive that’s faulty. Here’s how you can argue successfully with the boss and live to tell about it. Take these three steps.
1. Get all the facts. Is the boss’s decision really boneheaded? Maybe there are reasons for it that you don’t understand. The company’s strategy could be shifting in response to competitors’ moves, a pending cash crunch, a regulatory problem, M&A activity, or other conditions not yet apparent to you. It’s possible that the boss understands there will be problems but feels that from a big-picture perspective the plan makes sense.
You’ll encourage an open discussion about the decision if you listen respectfully as the boss announces it rather than reflexively arguing against it or, worse, disagreeing in public or losing your temper. Ask for “background” about the plan, not a “rationale” for it, which can sound confrontational. Learn what it’s meant to achieve. Learn in what ways the decision is based on solid evidence, and in what ways on assumptions. Ask open-ended questions about the effect it will have on staff, the supply chain, finances, the company’s reputation and so on.
Tell the boss you agree with his objectives, or you agree that change is needed, or that there are parts of the plan that sound really good to you. Ask for permission to study it and discuss it later. Schedule a meeting.
Gather all the intelligence that’s available so you can develop an alternate plan that achieves the original decision’s objectives but avoids its problems.
2. Develop your plan. Don’t let your disappointment about the decision make you feel you have to start from scratch. Identify what’s good about the boss’s plan. Try to retain those parts, not only because they’re right but also to give the boss some ownership of your version. Get creative. Think about all the other ways the expected goals could be reached. You can begin by picturing an ideal solution and thinking forward to see what would be needed to make it work.
Mine your network for ideas. Ask people across the company how they can add value to your proposition. Suppliers can be especially useful to talk with, since they may have processes that can help. As you talk with others, make it clear that you’re looking for the best way to make the boss’s plan work, not trying to supplant it with your own.
Test your plan with trusted advisors. They may identify flaws you don’t see. Maybe your plan won’t generate revenue quickly enough. Maybe it relies on resources that are no longer available. Your advisors can help you make the process you’re proposing faster, cheaper and even more effective. They also can tell you if it will threaten someone who might try to block it. Working with them, you can find ways to get that person’s support.
Think about the boss’s personal motivators as well. Maybe he’s playing it safe because of a pending retirement, or maybe he’s accepting some risk to earn a huge bonus. You can’t get into someone else’s mind, but you can try to get into the boss’s shoes, to look at the plan from his perspective. (While you’re at it, examine your own motives: Are you against the plan because it hurts you in some way? Because you weren’t consulted? Because the boss is a dork who couldn’t have any good ideas?)
3. Present your plan. Anticipate what questions the boss may ask about your plan, and prepare concise, persuasive answers to them. Prepare a written summary that you’ll leave behind. Present your plan with confidence and enthusiasm, because if you don’t show you believe in it, the boss won’t either.
Begin by describing the plan’s payoffs, and then go into details of its implementation. Don’t burden the boss with too much detail, though, unless you’re asked for it. Once the boss is satisfied with your answer to a question, stop explaining and move on with your presentation. Avoid digressing from your main message or mentioning other people’s criticisms of the boss’s plan.
Choose your words carefully. When discussing the original plan, never use the word “disagree.” That might get the boss’s back up. Even a “but” might infer you’re negating what the boss says. Present “recommendations” or “suggestions,” not the “conclusion” you reached about what’s needed, which would sound pompous.
Despite your best efforts, the boss may insist that you carry out the original plan. If that happens, the best solution may be to get approval to do so on a test basis. Be sure you make it an honest test, not one intended to showcase the plan’s weaknesses. Document every step. Let staff members who don’t have an interest in the results help you make your evaluation. Cite their participation when you report the results.
What can you do if the boss remains unpersuaded? Come to the meeting prepared for that possibility. If the plan violates law or compromises ethics, you may choose to refuse and accept the consequences. Absent those kinds of problems, though, you can agree to move ahead and feel good about it because you’ve met your obligation to make a strong case against the decision. Be sure the boss understands that you’re ready to move forward with dedication and enthusiasm.
At some point every manager has to argue with the boss. Whether or not you’re successful, the challenge can provide a payoff. You get to demonstrate leadership, creativity, an ability to negotiate and deep concern for the well being of both your boss and the company.
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