Compelling Requests, Part I: The Secret to Surviving Flatland Hell

(This is the first of three posts on Compelling Requests.)

In a client call last Monday, a global pharma executive bluntly lamented his world:

“I was born and live in flatland hell.”

Living in a matrixed organization, he was stressed.

His stress was justified – and for many leaders all too common. Flatland Hell is an almost ubiquitous disease in distributed teams, global companies and flat organizational structures.

In Flatland Hell, basically any issue that requires people to stretch beyond their established roles, loyalties and identities can become challenging.

Flatland organizations are often structured so that people may not have the same physical space, boss, goals or culture. These natural mechanisms for creating trust and accountability are missing. Obviously, without these not much happens.

Here are some key symptoms of Flatland Hell:

  • Relationships tend to be transactional, guided by competing priorities and interests.
  • Urgent tasks often hijack critical leadership work - the very work needed to make those tasks sensible and meaningful to distributed teams.
  • Bosses (or colleagues) either don't have your back or lack the authority to act as buffers, filters and priority setters.
  • There is an "ends justify the means" mindset.
  • People live with and even support delusional systems.
  • Politics and stories become more meaningful than results.
Bottom line, it can be hard or impossible to get things done.

My client is stressed because he needs to get big things done. A matrixed management structure across six countries leaves each team marching to the beat of its own drum. Meanwhile, changing markets in his country require parallel efforts in several other countries. And these leadership teams are simply not interested.

So how do he and his team exert influence – without the authority to do so – to drive change across the matrix?

Three Core Ideas Are Your Ticket Out Of Flatland Hell 

 The goals are to magnify your influence, reach agreements and achieve results.

The central lever to reach these goals is the science of making Compelling Requests. Properly done, Compelling Requests are the most powerful tool leaders have for navigating Flatland Hell.

Idea #1 : Orchestrate Compelling Requests.

It's a simple idea: create a context for another person to take the choice you want them to take. To be compelling, it needs to be a request that works for both of you, or carries enough weight of consequences that it is must. So the bulk of your work involves creating the RIGHT CONTEXT for your request to be TRULY COMPELLING (think: carrot or James Gandolfini).

Idea #2 : Practice Influencing As A Team Sport.

A day in the life of a typical flatlander trying to influence alone can feel desperately out of control! Teams are often able to make compelling requests that individuals would find difficult to make compelling on their own. Some currencies are much more powerful when a team stands solidly behind them. Plus, team members can coach each other's influencing approach, giving feedback on style and ways-of-being.

Idea #3 : Link Compelling Requests To Primary Constraints.

Linking compelling requests to resolving primary constraints can help to make them very compelling, despite other headwinds. A primary constraint is the one key condition that currently most limits a sustainable level of higher performance. When you take actions that resolve a primary constraint, performance jumps to a higher level. 

Why Is This Important?

 Getting big things done is called survival in business. And getting big, gnarly, nearly impossible things done is called success.

And that means you need to successfully navigate Flatland Hell.