A few years back, I wrote an article for CIO on how to handle the blow-up meeting and create breakthroughs.
Now almost three years later, I share one of my blow-up meeting moments in my new book, Digital Trailblazer: Essential Lessons to Jumpstart Transformation and Accelerate Your Technology Leadership.
In this short excerpt from the book, published with permission from Wiley, I show how these blow-up moments often happen when you least expect them:
Charles does his demo at the meeting, and I read the room. It’s the first time the executives have really spent time on this product, and I see a group of blank faces. They are watching a demo of a sophisticated B2B product designed for a customer segment that many of them don’t know very well.
But Charles has his own stakeholders he works with on the product. They are highly knowledgeable and work with customers daily. Some of them are also experts with the underlying data and perform ad hoc analysis on it regularly.
No one in the room is shy. The experts start asking Charles questions, and he does his best to answer them. Can it break down the data with customized dimensions? Can we add columns on the fly and implement nested sorts? Can we develop custom searches to define the views?
More questions are voiced, and Charles doesn’t know all the answers. He lets the group know. “I’m not sure if the technology can do what you’re asking.” That works the first and second time, but by the third time, I definitely see a drop in everyone’s confidence. And as expected, now everyone’s eyes are focused on me. I see the pitchforks and torches, and they’re about to scream, “Burn the CIO!” They’re thinking: He chose the technology platform and brought agile here. He works with the corporate IT groups.
At that moment, I went for it.
In this story, I elected to respond to the blow-up moment by helping my colleagues realign our visions and open everyone’s minds to alternative solutions. The blow-up exposed the executives’ true feelings, and with just one supporter in the room, I got the program back on track.
5 tips for beating the blow-up
You will have blow-ups and other awkward moments when driving digital transformations. Sometimes, people will react emotionally to the changes you’re driving. Other times, they may be confronting your vision, strategy, or priorities and are trying to persuade others on a new course. You will also face detractors attempting to slow down or stop transformations.
Follow these tips to steer blow-up moments toward productive outcomes, whether you are responding to a blow-up or creating one.
- Turn on your active listening skills. Listen to find the true objections and separate out the emotional responses. You want to know what problem they are raising in order to respond to it appropriately.
- Seek to identify the why behind an outburst or objection. Your approach likely conflicts with the objector’s goals, incentives, or beliefs. People will only listen to your response when you address the problems from their perspective. If you don’t know the source of their objection, you may need to ask a question like, “Why is this a problem?”—making it clear that your intent is to understand, not refute.
- Let others speak up before responding. Blow-up moments often get others speaking up, which you want to happen to surface new perspectives or issues. You’ll want to create space for people to share their opinions; if you respond too quickly, you may inadvertently close the door and have people holding onto their frustrations.
- Don’t lose control of the room. While you want to hear everyone’s opinions, you don’t want to let the meeting get out of hand. You also can’t afford to lose your cool by showing frustration or anger. Once you’ve heard from enough people and aired diverse opinions, get yourself emotionally ready to get everyone’s attention.
- Respond with a plan. In some cases, you’ll have the answers to people’s objections, and sometimes, like in my story, you’ll come prepared with an approach to build alignment. Other times, you may hear new ideas or problems that need review after the meeting. Regardless, people need to know that you’re listening, understand the issues, and are ready to lead an organized response. Let everyone know the next steps and how you’ll bring a conclusion to the issues raised.
Making the most of mentoring
Digital Trailblazer is full of stories about transformation experiences that CIOs can relate to, including addressing technical debt, leading P1 incident management bridge calls, handling transformation detractors, and answering questions at Board of Director meetings.
I tell these stories because I believe every CIO must mentor aspiring leaders. This generation of digital trailblazers is hungry to drive transformation, innovation, and growth—for their businesses, customers, and themselves. They are invested in developing their breadth and depth of skills, and CIOs should take advantage of that by helping them develop the confidence and experience to lead through transformational moments.