Perception Management

James McGovern frequently uses the term “perception management” in his blog, and there’s no doubt that it’s a function that most enterprise architects have to do. It’s an incredibly difficult task, however. Everyone is going to bring some amount of vested interests to the table, and when there’s conflict in those interests, that can create a challenge.

A recent effort I was involved in required me to facilitate a discussion around several options. I was putting together some background material for the discussion, and started grouping points into pros and cons. I quickly realized, however, that by doing so, I was potentially making subjective judgements on those points. What I may have considered a positive point, someone else may have considered it a negative point. If there isn’t agreement on what’s good and what’s bad, you’re going to have a hard time. In the end, I left things as pros and cons, since I had a high degree of confidence that the people involved had this shared understanding, but I made a mental note to be cautious about using this approach when the vested interests of the participants are an unknown.

This whole space of perception management is very interesting to me. More often than not, the people with strong, unwavering opinions tend to attract more attention. Just look at the political process. It’s very difficult for a moderate to gain a lot of attention, while someone who is far to the left or far to the right can easily attract it. At the same time, when the elections are over, the candidates typically have to move back toward the middle to get anything done. Candidates who are in the middle get accused of flip-flopping. Now, put this in the context of a discussion facilitator. The best facilitator is probably one who has no interests of his or her own, but who is able to see the interests of all involved, pointing out areas of commonality and contention. In other words, they’re the flip-floppers.

I like acting as a facilitator, because I feel like I’ve had a knack for putting myself in someone else’s shoes. I think it’s evident in the fact that you don’t see me putting too many bold, controversial statements up on this blog, but rather talking about the interesting challenges that exist in getting things done. At the same time, I really like participating in the discussions because it drives me nuts when people won’t take a position and just muddle along with indecision. It’s hard to participate and facilitate at the same time.

My parting words on the subject come from my Dad. Back in those fun, formative high school years as I struggled through all of the social dynamics of that age group, my Dad told me, “you can’t control what other people will do or think, you can only control your own thoughts or actions.” Now, while some may read this and think that this means you’re free to be an arrogant jerk and not give a hoot what anyone thinks about you, I took it a different way. First and foremost, you do have to be confident in your own thoughts and beliefs. This is important, because if you don’t have certain ideals and values on who you want to be, then you’re at risk for being someone that will sacrifice anything just to gain what it is you desire, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Second, the only way to change people’s perception of you is by changing your own actions, not by doing the same thing the same way, and hoping they see the light. I can’t expect everyone to read the topics in this blog and suddenly change their IT departments. Some may read it and not get it at all. Some may. For those that don’t, I may need to pursue other options for demonstrating the principles and thus change their perceptions. At the same time, there will always be those who are set in their ways because they have a fundamental different set of values. Until they choose to change those values, your energy is best spent elsewhere.

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