The Rule of Thirds and Why it’s Key to Managing Massive Change

by Julianne Rowe

The Rule of Thirds and Why it’s Key to Managing Massive Change

Transitions bring out the best and the worst in people.

When we began the transition of our flagship PDF product, Acrobat, from boxed software to a subscription offering as part of our new Document Cloud—one of the more massive transitions in Adobe’s history—developing a new marketing strategy was just one of the hurdles we faced. I also learned firsthand that transitioning our marketing organization along with it would raise a new set of challenges. While some people jumped right into this large change, others were a little more skeptical—and some were openly doubtful.

Now, I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing. Every team needs a healthy dose of skepticism at points, just as much as it needs an injection of excitement at others.

What’s important is to recognize each of these groups of people, figure out who’s in them, and approach the way you manage each a little differently.

Rule of thirds

I’m a bit of an amateur photographer, and in photography, you have what’s known as the “rule of thirds.” This means you mentally split the photo frame into three equal parts, and try to make sure there’s something interesting or different in each part. That’s what makes a well-balanced photo.

I think there’s a rule of thirds in team management, too. On every team, there’s an Excited Third who are always ready to start something new; a Thoughtful Third who need a little convincing; and a Skeptical Third whose usual reaction is, “No way in hell”, or, at the very least, “Prove it.”

All three groups will exert their own influence on your project. In order for your transition to go smoothly, you’ll need to figure out who’s in each third, learn how to approach each of them, and find a way to balance their viewpoints. Here’s how.

Clear and open

For all three groups—and your team as a whole—clear and open communication will stop a lot of problems before they start.

Sometimes, we as managers tend to think of transition as something we really have to sell, but I actually prefer to under-position it a bit. Sometimes you just have to say, “This is why we’re doing it,” and not oversell. The sooner everyone acknowledges the transition honestly, the sooner the team can start moving forward.

For the first group, the Excited Third, that discussion alone can be enough to get them going. As long as you’re clear about deliverables and deadlines, they’ll do their best to make it happen.

For the Thoughtful Third, you’ll likely need to follow up and answer questions along the way. Take time to talk with them about their concerns. You might find out, for example, they think a certain revenue source is the most important aspect of the business model; and you can explain, “Actually, we don’t need to worry about revenue from that source. Here’s why.” And sometimes they just say, “Oh, OK,” and get to work. That’s all it takes.

The Skeptical Third, though, tend to hang back until they see the new structure working, which means you’ve got to find a way to make sure they contribute while also minimizing disruption until they come around. But the Skeptical Third often don’t announce their reluctance; in fact, they might not even be aware they’re skeptical.

My way of handling this is simple: Be as transparent as possible, and force the team to do the same. To make sure this happens, we created a simple process in which we connected deliverables, deadlines and dependencies to peer pressure. Making sure everyone’s actually doing, and not just talking about it, helps the Skeptical Third get through the transition better.

All these techniques, though, come back to the exact same idea: put everything out in the open, communicate clearly and honestly with everyone on your team, and encourage them to communicate clearly and honestly with each other. Accountability (a.k.a. the risk of embarrassment) is a powerful motivator.

Staying centered

I’m not saying the Skeptical Third need to be coddled. Instead, we just need to recognize they’re present.

Sometimes they’re holding onto some part of the old model, and thinking, “I won’t move until I get this resolved.” And sometimes that’s a good thing, because it needs to be resolved. Same goes for the Thoughtful Third—often they just want to explore and refine the process, which may be exactly what you need.

What’s most important throughout the whole transition process is to stay centered. Don’t let any of the three groups drag focus away from the target you’ve set. As you dialogue differently with each of your three groups, you have to keep bringing them back to the core of what the project’s about.

The more you communicate openly about the nuts and bolts of a big change, right from the start, the sooner you’ll find out who’s in each of the three groups. And the sooner you find that out, the more effectively you can address and work with each of their viewpoints and get them working together in a unified whole.

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Mark GrilliMark Grilli is vice president of product marketing for Document Cloud at Adobe. He is responsible for worldwide marketing strategy and implementation of Adobe Document Cloud, including Adobe eSign services and Acrobat DC. Prior to joining Adobe, Grilli held marketing and client services positions at WebEx (now a Cisco Company) and was co-founder in an e-learning start up.

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