Influence Mapping (Part 3)

This post concludes a three-part series on influence mapping, comparing it to a game of chess. In Part 1 we covered the opening, creating the map. In Part 2 we discussed the middlegame, which is how to work the map to evolve the influence landscape to your benefit. In this post we will look at the endgame, introduce some additional principles, and summarize the series.


David McKee’s children’s book, Three Monsters, is described as a fable about “sharing and acceptance.” It’s also quite the little tale about diplomacy, negotiation, and influence. The book is, of course, about three monsters. The red and blue monsters laze about on a large island, complaining about how rocky it is. One day a yellow monster arrives in a small boat. The yellow monster’s island was destroyed in an earthquake. He humbly asks if they would share theirs with him.

Instead of agreeing, they verbally abuse him (they are monsters after all), calling him horrendous things like a “gormless gump,” “mustard face,” and a “custard-colored, cringing creep.” The yellow monster consistently responds diplomatically with things like, “your wonderfulnesses,” “most brilliant of monsters,” and “glorious kindnesses.” The red and blue monsters will still not let him move onto the island, but he can have all the rocks—which they want to get rid of anyway.

The yellow monster thanks them sincerely and begins removing the rocks. When he is finished, he asks if he should also level the soil for them. They say of course. They then suggest he also tidy the edge of the jungle. At the end the yellow monster thanks them and leaves, and they are shocked. Where is he going? With all the supplies they graciously provided him, he made his own beautiful island. They want to know if they can visit him. He says yes—if he can also visit them when he wants.

This is similar to one of Gerald Weinberg’s principles in The Secrets of Consulting. He calls it the “Buffalo Bridle.” The lesson is that you can make the buffalo go where you want, provided that is also where the buffalo wants to go.  

The Endgame

Author Rick A. Morris observes that when you become a PM, you’re told the BIG LIE: “You own the product!” You quickly realize it’s not true. In fact, you don’t even have much decision authority. (What you do have is a unique risk of getting blamed for things.) As designer Karen VanHouten recently shared, “…the absolute worst situations in my career were the ones where I had a high level of responsibility but absolutely no real authority to do what needed to be done….” This is in part why Morris argues the No. 1 skill PMs should focus on is influence.

I would extend this to other roles (not least of which is designer). Even when one does have formal authority, after all, influence is still crucial—attempting to mandate behavior change often just backfires anyway. Real leadership, after all, is not a synonym for “executive.” It’s rather the ability to show a path forward in a way that inspires others to want to be co-travelers. To quote the great John C. Maxwell, “Leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less.”  

That brings us to mapping as a tool to uncover your best influencing opportunities. In short, it’s the map not the meeting. As you grow your coalition and increase the D’s exposure to the evolved, collaborative agenda, you will gain a sense of when and what the right meeting with the D will be. That’s the endgame. This is similar to the Japanese concept of nemawashi, of “working around the roots.” Nemawashi happens in the informal discussions before a formal proposal, or ringi, is submitted for approval. In the end, you want to have grown an agenda that essentially sells itself; or, as Joel DeLuca says in Political Savvy, the goal is to provide the D with an “experience of convergent validity.”

DeLuca emphasizes creating “51% support” (i.e., majority support) for your idea. Here we differ somewhat—there is a difference between someone putting an issue to a vote vs. making a decision based on what they’re hearing. If the latter, which is more likely the case in my experience, then you don’t always need majority support. In fact, you could gain majority support only for the D to strike the idea down anyway, especially if the few people who have the D’s ear were not in your majority.

The present approach therefore relies more on Michael Grinder’s concept of permission and the (perhaps counterintuitive) idea of removing yourself from the equation, which brings us to Grinder’s concept of “contamination.” This is when you and your idea become conflated in people’s minds, as easily happens when presenting to executives who are essentially “holding court.” If I go pitch to the D, it becomes easy to see the agenda as just “Charles’ idea,” which means dismissing me in the meeting dismisses my idea.

In other words, you want to avoid being the idea. Instead, you want as many people with the D’s ear as possible feeling they co-own the agenda and wanting to talk about it. You are ultimately trying to right-shift the D on the map by working it to generate sufficient high-permission support. In fact, sometimes the “meeting” doesn’t even need to happen! Or, if it does, you might not need to be there. This can be visualized as a table:

As you go through the process of mining for common cause, growing coalition around a collaborative agenda, and getting others advocating on your behalf (all principles from the last post), keep your WHAT and HOW flexible. This principle is from UN facilitator Allan Parker. Attempts to influence often fail when we focus on our WHAT (our agenda) to the neglect of our HOW (our approach).

As Allan warns, if you find yourself justifying your ideas, being defensive, or blaming others for the lack of your success, these are red flags that you’re too focused on WHAT. If you need to alter your approach, then you should have the flexibility to do so. It’s not about your habits and how you like to approach things. As Allan puts it, you must learn how your target audience would like to have their information and then ensure your autopilot isn’t running the show.

Ultimately, if you’re focusing on positional disagreements, then you’re not focusing on HOW. This is an important concept, so let’s spend a little time here. As Schön and Rein note in Frame Reflection, your agenda—whatever it is—contains a narrative about what is wrong and what to do about it. Stakeholder disagreements are often more about the latter part, the solution ideas. These are akin to disagreements over “positions.” An important negotiation concept is to up-level from personal positions to the overarching interests they are meant to fulfill.

This is a form of “reframing.” As described in Fisher and Ury’s classic, Getting to Yes, this expands your ZOPA, the “zone of possible agreement.” In a follow-up book, Getting Past No, William Ury elaborates that when someone disagrees with your lower-level position you should have the presence of mind to shift attention back to the ZOPA itself. You can often do this simply by acting as if the other person is ultimately trying to solve the same larger problem that would satisfy both of your interests. This neat trick then enables you to reframe disagreement as collaboration.

In product work, this position-to-interests concept is often described in terms of output-to-outcomes, in terms of tying solution ideas (ideas about work output) to goals framed around what they are meant to achieve (to outcomes). Eliciting such target outcomes can be challenging but doing so creates a space to then explore alternative ways to achieve them. This helps you expand your ZOPA and further pull in coalition. Solidifying agreement around more ultimate aims helps reframe the situation to the satisfaction of all parties involved.

Even if you largely disagree with what someone is saying, keep in mind that there is still a ZOPA. You don’t have to be in total agreement with someone to join forces and fruitfully collaborate. If, however, you meet with someone who will not support the decision you would like to have made, that’s fine. Mark them as opposition, but don’t let it impact how you interact with them. Look for ways you can help them anyway. Try to add value for everyone you talk to.

Consider each conversation, first and foremost, as just being informational. To quote author Jake Kelfer, “You never know who you’re talking to until you know who you’re talking to.” Whether someone is coalition or opposition, you’re still learning. You’re still expanding your network. Even if they don’t support this decision, they might support the next. They might suggest you talk to someone else who ends up being instrumental. As my grandfather always told me, never burn bridges. Burning bridges dwarfs your network (not to mention that you might end up working for this person someday).

In the end, opposition then can still be of help. Unfortunately, the converse is also true—not all coalition will be helpful. Taking a concept from Alan Weiss, most coalition will be “recommenders,” people who try to connect you to the D. Some, who Weiss calls “gatekeepers,” may act like coalition while trying to prevent you from gaining access. There are a variety of reasons why this happens. Paraphrasing Paul Jocelyn, gatekeepers often try to bottleneck just to protect their own status and perceived personal fiefdoms. Whatever the reason, it pays to spot and circumvent gatekeepers.

Sometimes, however, there is a legitimate reason for the gatekeeping. Maybe it’s part of their role. Maybe it’s part of the current process and they’re serving a sort of quality control function. As noted in Part 1, maybe they are doing similar work and perceive you as encroaching onto their territory. If the latter, then they are “settlers,” a concept from change management expert April Mills. You need to obtain settler blessing—if you don’t have settler imprimatur, you’re asking for trouble. It is important then to identify settlers and add them to your map.   

As you proceed, remember that every meeting along the way is just another conversation. If you aren’t treating them as such and focusing on relationship, then you’re probably putting your WHAT above your HOW, because a conversation is not sales pitch and it’s not a job interview. This carries an important implication we often forget. As John Sanford makes clear in his excellent book, Between People, (discussed here), conversations are egalitarian. This means several things, not least of which is that real conversations happen between equals.

The person you’re talking to might outrank you. It doesn’t matter. Borrowing another concept from Michael Grinder, there is a difference between someone’s “position” and their “person.” If you’re just focusing on position, on rank or grade level, and not on person and relationship, then you’re not having a conversation. Alan Weiss has long pointed out that to be seen as consultative you must first believe you are peers with the person you are speaking with. If you instead show up ready to give your “very best pitch,” you risk coming across as needy—you risk losing respect.

OK. Let’s look at a final example and then wrap. Sometimes the map will not show you where to start, in which case you just need to dive in. In the example below, Anushka is the D. You are aware of two groups with high permission with Anushka but have no idea whether they would support the decision you would like to have made. You decide to meet with the larger group. They are opposed. You meet with the second group. They are also opposed, but suggest you talk to Olga.

You meet with Olga. She declines to say whether she is in support of the decision but offers to chat with someone from the first group you met with. She meets with Ravi and reports back they will both support the decision. Ravi then suggests the three of you meet with John, as Ravi believes John will ultimately also support the decision. John agrees. You then set up time with Anushka, including Olga, Ravi, and John in the chat. Olga has high org authority and Ravi has high permission with the D, both assets you are leveraging by enlisting them into the chat with Anushka.

In sum, to influence a decision, any decision, you need to discover who has the authority to make it, who and what has permission to influence them, and then design the approach accordingly. This applies anywhere. In product work, for instance, any design, properly understood, is just decisions made. Influence is the currency. It’s all just conversation and the meetings are the medium. The outcome of any set of meetings in part depends on their sequencing. If you want to up-level your impact, seek the most expensive problem you can influence.

Thank you for reading. I hope this was helpful. In total, we covered 18 influence principles in this series, shown together below. Beneath that is another way of showing this, what might be called the “Iceberg of Influence.” Huge debt to the great Joel DeLuca.

2 thoughts on “Influence Mapping (Part 3)

  1. Thank you,Mr Lambdin; this series of articles made me understand a lot of mistakes I made in my life! Not that I won’t make them anymore (habits are tough to overcome), but at least, hopefully, awareness will help me stop and think before acting


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