Cultural cheat codes

Over the years I have found myself using some slightly Machiavellian tactics to help land new ways of working and reset expectations for people not used to internet-era thinking. It remains a surprise (and something of a disappointment) how often I have to dig into this bag of tricks after so many years of doing this stuff. Truth be told better people than me don’t need to resort to these kinds of schemes but they’ve worked time and again for me (and others) and they emerged from a good place – honest!

These are the five I lean on the most – and due to reading and watching too many con/hustle books and movies they all have their own names 🙂

‘The Next Day Delivery’ 

I find this is one of my most effective tactics in the majority of institutions I work with – but also the one I wish wasn’t so successful. So many organisations are used to a software/IT paradigm that equates to big bang launch and then maybe – if they are lucky – some annual small (costly) improvements. This reinforces the pressure on upfront development, waterfall ways of working and risk aversion. Stakeholders – not surprisingly – want everything on day one as they are used to that being it. One and done. So convincing them that we are doing something different is hard and even if they go along with it they don’t really believe it.

Soooo I have the team hold back a few improvements before launch – nothing grandstanding but stuff insiders will notice – and then we deploy within 48 hours or so of launch. Then we cherry pick a couple of things from the inevitable post-launch feedback and deploy those improvements within that sprint.

The team is set up for this and expecting it but often to stakeholders used to the ‘old way’ it feels like magic and completely changes expectations (sometimes this swaps one problem for another but generally it is worth it!)

‘The Liberty Valance’ 

My favourite Western is associated with the line 

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

I misrepresent that a bit in this tactic that I have spoken about before. This is something in the naughty corner of my commitment to working in the open. 

In organisations that are especially influenced by external validation (which is a lot of them in my experience) there is a power in the reality warping effect of the right kind of public writing and speaking. This is a tricky tightrope to walk but the idea is that you share the future you want to see as if it has already landed. It needs to have a kernel of truth – it isn’t about being misleading – but it is like a local version of William Gibson’s

 ‘The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.

If the external perception is that these new ways of working are more widespread then it becomes easier to have the right internal conversations to make that a reality.

‘The Sacrifice’

I can’t believe this is still needed let alone that it works but it really does in the right circumstances. 

Once upon a time someone wrote ‘Google is the homepage’ on an Index card bluetacked to a column in a crappy office in London. While a bunch of people misinterpreted this – what it boiled down to was that most people start on search NOT your homepage. 

On every big web project I’ve worked on in the last decade this has been true in spades. Traffic to the homepage was never a major factor – users landed all over the place. I always saw this as a powerful bargaining chip – leaders were so often fixated on the homepage that by making compromises there I was able to get support for much more radical (and helpful) changes elsewhere on the site(s) without ever really affecting user needs. Win-win.

‘The Warren Beatty’ 

This one is basics really and all it really needs is for you to take your own ego out of the equation. The goal is to identify a particular type of person in the organisation – they should be some combination of ambitious, influential, not necessarily the most senior but have the ears of those who are and a bit openly cynical about your work. 

Then it is all about seduction. Create a role for them with some kudos, bring them inside the tent, give them a platform, listen to their concerns and address some of them (openly) and put them out front. Let them become the face / voice of the project (with the right support!). 

This isn’t about having them spin for you – but if you can appeal to their vanity to get them involved my experience is that there is a very high chance they will become incredibly effective evangelists whose influence reaches corners of the organisations that us hoody wearing hipsters would never breach.

‘The Goldilocks’ 

This about selecting an ‘exemplar’. Since the early GDS days the idea of a using digital ‘exemplar’ projects to prove these ways of working and embed the approaches have been popular but I think too often organisations stumble into the choice of the project without really thinking through what they need from it. Just picking the next thing on the portfolio roadmap isn’t going to have the impact you want.

It also isn’t about low hanging fruit or RATs – it is about finding something that gives you (a) an opportunity to demonstrate the new ways of working on (b) something that enough of the right people care about that it will cut through the noise that is (c) difficult enough that it isn’t considered a gimme but straightforward enough that it has a high chance of success.

If it isn’t this Unicorn mix it will either bounce of the organisation atmosphere or burn up on re-entry. It needs careful consideration – half the battle is choosing the battle ground.


Okay – so am I a terrible human being? Should I have kept these dirty little tactics to myself? If not…what are yours?

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