Ruling Your Own Destiny

After reading my last articleon the power of writing down your requests, Lilyn Kamath of asked a very good question: What do you do when you face resource conflicts within your own marketing department?

One technique, which Lilyn employs, is to use a combination of informal relationships and “bamboo-shoot torture” to pull work out of your colleagues. All of us, however, would prefer methods that don’t violate the Geneva Convention.

In a perfect world, every single person in your organization would have her interests aligned, and such conflicts could be resolved quickly and easily by considering the relative priority of the different projects requesting the resources.

Everyone who works in such a perfect organization, raise your hand. A heck of a lot of people want your job.

The fact is that the world is imperfect, chaotic, conflicted, and not particularly fair. The question is, what are you going to do about it?

Earlier in my life, I had the privilege of studying under Debora Spar of Harvard Business School. Her recent book, “Ruling the Waves,” examines the history of the Internet revolution and compares it to other “this changes everything” telecommunications revolutions, such as the telegraph and the radio. Much of what she has to say is relevant to our situations as marketers.

Spar’s research focuses on the nature (and nurture) of rules. Every business has three options when confronted by rules, whether governmental or environmental: exit the situation, work within the rules, and work to change the rules. These are the same options you face in your daily life. Let’s look at each in turn.

1. You can exit your situation.

OK, so maybe you’re not ready to quit your job (especially in today’s economy!). But there are different ways to exit the situation, some more graceful than others. You could transfer the project to someone else, either by changing your job description or theirs. This solution, however, merely transfers the pain to another part of your organization, rather than taking it away. A more painful but potentially more helpful solution is to simply shut down the offending project. It’s better to plan out a controlled and graceful retreat than to suffer an embarrassing rout.

2. You can work within the rules of your situation.

As the old saying goes, even the Devil can quote scripture. And if it’s good enough for the Prince of Darkness, it’s probably good enough for us marketers. Even if a situation appears to have “snafu” written all over it, a careful and detailed examination of the rules at play can reveal unexpected solutions. For example, if you’re budget constrained, perhaps there are off-budget approaches that you can take, such as bartering with vendors — or even other departments within your company. If you’re manpower constrained, maybe there’s a way to get extensions on some of your projects. It’s always better to explicitly manage with constraints rather than letting them manage you.

3. You can change the rules of your situation.

This is equally tempting and tough to pull off. After all, what could be easier than solving a problem when you’ve set up all the rules in your favor? And after all, what could be harder than changing all of the rules that have been in place for eons? Ultimately, whether you choose to use this solution should depend on your basic personality. It takes a special kind of person to stand up to organizational inertia. Forget about confronting bosses or senior managers; inertia is orders of magnitude more powerful. You have to be willing to stand, unflinching and unbending, under the weight of “this is how it has always been done.”

For those who are still willing to try, I’ll offer these words of hope: It can be done. One of my good friends from business school felt so strongly about justice that he always sought to change the rules whenever they seemed unjust. At first, people didn’t believe that he was serious, but he persevered and ultimately moved mountains (and one particularly truculent assistant dean!). He’s now back in the military, serving as a major in a Marine Expeditionary Unit, and I have no doubt that he will succeed in his mission.

Rules, whether formal or informal, can be powerful obstacles or powerful allies. A disciplined marketer looks within herself to determine whether she’s better off exiting a sticky situation, working within the rules, or changing the rules.

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