Changing Organizations With Plausible Promises

It is inevitable that, at some point, a passionate practitioner wants things to be better. Whether that is improved API design quality, greater developer autonomy, or increased product focus, these change agents want to nudge their organizations in new directions.

Knowing where to start, however, can be overwhelming. Feeling, on a deep, fundamental level, that a course of action is right can seem insignificant compared to the size and entrenchment of a complex system.

Clay Shirky wrote about the term plausible promise in his book, Here Comes Everybody. He defined it as “a message framed in big enough terms to inspire interest, yet achievable enough to inspire confidence.”

That sounds straightforward on the surface:

  • Aim too high, and people will dismiss you as a liar, hopelessly naïve, or someone looking to sell something. Examples include “End World Hunger Tomorrow!”, “6-Pack Abs In 6 Days”, or “Generate Beloved APIs From Your Database Schema”. It is hard to rally people to your cause if it seems unobtainable.
  • Aim too low, and nobody will be inspired to take up the cause. There’s either too much specific detail or too little perceived reward to make it attractive. Urging that “Every field name must be written as kabab-case” is not the bold rallying cry you might think it is.

The challenge is to find the Goldilocks middle message: not too pie in the sky, not too in the weeds, but just right.

John Cutler is a product evangelist and coach. In his guide on sustainable change agency, he defines several ways you’ll know when your plausible promise is working:

  • People begin to invite you to meetings to learn more about it
  • Other parts of the organization begin to adopt it
  • You’ll have volunteers helping to grow the idea in new ways
  • Someone will try to take credit for it (a good sign!)
  • People will reach out to thank you

A picture of a linear lifecycle process.
A picture of a linear lifecycle process accomodating many changes.

You want change. Identify what about that change will achieve broad acceptance. Articulate how the process for change is not only possible but probable in the current organization. Gaining critical mass is still challenging. If you start with a plausible promise, however, you’ll have taken an essential first step.

“Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.” - Margaret Mead