Compelling Requests, Part III: How To Get Big Gnarly Nearly Impossible Things Done In Complex Global Organizations

(NOTE: This is the third of a three part series on Compelling Requests)

The dysfunction was spectacular.

That sums up my assessment of a cross-functional team in a global pharmaceutical company I worked with a couple years ago.

Five leaders were corralling the development of a very promising and innovative drug – and they were paralyzed.


Their R&D division sat in a matrixed organization. Everybody had to admit, the matrix looked great on paper. Resources were intended to move fluidly between Product Development, Marketing, Regulatory, and Manufacturing as needed to hit all crucial milestones. 

But the matrix was anything but fluid.

Instead, it was a bundling of ironclad silos. “This is our turf and that is your turf,” was the not-so-hidden mantra. Instead of the ebb and flow of resources to meet project needs, the team found itself wandering in a thirsty desert.

Attempting to work together - laterally, across the silos - initially evoked gallows humor. Later the team broke down into conflict and mistrust. 

A promising drug. Tens of millions invested year over year. Little movement. Talented people seeking work elsewhere.

Get the picture? Grim.

Flatland Hell Is A Bad Virus

Flatland Hell is an insidious virus that emerges when people who work together don’t have the same goals, the same boss, or the same culture.

Why do organizations catch it?

Because we lack one critical skill: influencing others.

Think about it. We live in a networked world, one in which distributed teams and flat organizational structures have replaced command and control as the most common means of doing business.

Getting anything big done requires working laterally. This means navigating across often-vague membranes into worlds where different bosses, conflicting goals and alien cultures determine what can and can’t be done.

And it's during that cross-over where things tend to head South. 

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, researchers confirm this with a survey of 8000 managers across 250 companies.

An encouraging 84% report that they can rely on their bosses and reports to come through on commitments. 

But across the matrix? Forget about it. From the article: “Only 9% of managers say they can rely on colleagues in other functions and units all the time, and just half say they can rely on them most of the time.” 

Only 9%. That's why I call it Flatland Hell.

What to do?

The Antivirus: Compelling Requests

First, a definition. A compelling request has four attributes:

  • It's compelling: person receiving the request knows why.
  • It's detailed: person receiving the request knows what.
  • It's time-bound: person receiving the request knows when.
  • It's actionable: person receiving the request knows how.

When teams practice compelling requests, they build resistance to the flatland hell virus. They breach barriers, work across silos, create focus and coherence on distributed teams, and harness resources in flat organizations.

Here’s why you should care: organizations grow and evolve at the speed compelling requests are made and responded to. 

Think of this as a natural law.

Because it is.

The Six Steps To Creating A Compelling Request

This is so important, I’m writing a book about it. Here I’ll offer a few cliff notes.

There are six steps to creating a compelling request. I summarize step each with: 1) a guiding idea to point you in the right direction; and 2) questions to clarify your approach. 

Warning: all of my clients hungrily adopt compelling requests. The idea pretty much sells itself.

Yet without exception, they learn that it’s not as easy as falling off a log.

Making compelling requests is a nuanced affair. That's why it's broken down into six steps. If you follow this approach, you'll be successful.

1. Choose To Influence

Assume that anyone can be transformed into an ally through the right series of compelling requests. Ask:

  • As your starting point, are you willing to assume that the right series of 
    compelling requests can influence anyone, potentially transforming them into your ally?
  • Are you willing and able shift your personal influencing style in order to give your targets what they want and to create a context that makes your requests compelling to them?

2. Sharpen Your Priorities

Linking compelling requests to resolving primary constraints gives you an opportunity to create hero moments. Ask:

  • Every compelling request is to a person and involves a task - so what are your top task and relationship goals?
  • What primary constraints can you identify to put your requests in a bigger organizational context, making them more compelling to targets and supporters?

3. Pick Your Targets

Trust, loyalty and influence are the residue of frequent and successful collaboration. Ask:

  • Who do you want to influence?
  • How will by driving a compelling request to firm agreement influence them?
  • Is decision-making in your organization controlled by silos or is it pushed down into teams in a matrix?
  • And how does this decision-making mechanism impact your choice of targets? 

4. Inventory Your Currencies For Exchange.

Influence is about giving the other person what they want, not changing what they want! Ask:

  • What currencies do you have to exchange (resources, information, social or political)?
  • Do you truly understand what your targets care about?
  • What is your primary focus at this moment: accomplishing a task or building a relationship?

5. Organize Your Supporters

Focus on supporters who are most skilled at collaborating first. Ask:

  • What supporters or allies will you enroll to supplement the "compellingness"of your requests?
  • What compelling requests will you make to build this coalition of supporters?

6. Drive Compelling Requests.

Respect how lack of trust in a relationship can limit your moves. Ask:

  • What series of compelling requests do you intend to deliver and how will you orchestrate the perfect moment to deliver these requests?
  • How will you know agreement has occurred?
  • How will you ensure the relationship with your target is strengthened and continues? 

Get Big Things Done

Compelling requests are, in other words, influencing without authority. I’ve found that when these six steps are considered and followed, the hellish constrictions of flat organizations, uncooperative silos, and distributed teams go away.

Escape Flatland Hell. Get big gnarly nearly impossible things done.