A Spanner Amnesty is a deceptively simple way to flush out potentially disruptive stakeholders
Inside every stakeholder there’s a spanner-chucker straining to get out.
That’s not literally true. Not EVERY stakeholder in your vital, career-defining project is intent on subterfuge or sabotage. But at the outset it’s safer to assume that they are, and to take appropriate measures. It only needs one spanner-chucker to bring things to a grinding, embarrassing, expensive halt. When it comes to spanner chucking, prevention is much better than cure. As CIA Director Ezra Kramer says in The Bourne Ultimatum, “My number one rule is hope for the best, plan for the worst.”
The private lives of stakeholders
In my experience, spanner-chuckers will readily declare themselves given the right opportunity. They’ll show you their spanner and tell you both where in the works they intend to chuck it and why it needs chucking. Maybe it’s because they’re talking to me, an outside adviser, and they don’t actually want a supposedly private conversation to be confidential. They actually want their concerns to leak back to the top. But in private, these are not veiled threats. They’re brazen and cocksure, the spanner equivalent of open-carry gun ownership in the United States.
I’ve had a sales director tell me during project discovery that they were fully on board with the proposed digital transformation project, but over their dead body would they give up on the current CRM platform. In other words they were all for transformation as long as nothing changed. The CEO who was sponsoring the project was blissfully unaware that one of their direct reports, who had expressed support for the project in public, was pulling the rug in private. Change projects are often the oil poured on the troubled waters of a culture problem.
If spanner-chuckers could be outed one by one in private conversations, I wondered whether they could be flushed out en masse. So, back in the day, I had the idea for a Spanner Amnesty. It’s a group exercise for a change project kick-off workshop. It’s presented as fun but it serves a serious purpose.
The Spanner Amnesty
You need a nice set of stainless steel spanners. And you need all the project stakeholders in the room. You point out that everyone in the room has the power and influence to disrupt, delay, or even destroy the project. As well as being a stakeholder, everyone has the potential to be a spanner-chucker. This is both a warning and sincere flattery. You make eye contact. You hand out the spanners in a somber and ceremonial fashion. People like holding them. They’re solid and practical. They have a reassuring heft. This exercise is about the potential to break things, but handling tools allows people to feel like makers.
You explain that the physical spanners represent the figurative spanners that each stakeholder is capable of chucking into the works of the project. And you introduce the idea of a Spanner Amnesty. If you’re going to chuck your spanner, now is the time to do so. Chuck it now when it will do least damage and it will give you the best chance of a receptive audience for your concerns. Chuck it now with everyone in the room so that it can be the basis of a constructive conversation. As this Harvard Business Review article suggests, a candid pre-mortem that is maybe a little rough and raw is much more useful than an autopsy full of recrimination and regret.
Everyone has to hand their spanner in. They either do so and declare an agenda that needs to be addressed. Or they hand it in silently as an indication that they have no agenda, and as a promise that they are not hiding any concerns that will emerge later. Et voilà, your Spanner Amnesty has taken some dangerous contraband off the streets of your project.
Only you will know if a Spanner Amnesty is a good idea for the project you’re working on. Whether it is appropriate, whether it will work as intended, depends on culture as well as context.
In my limited experience it has the desired effect. I’m ambivalent about workshops. I think they are sometimes used as a universal fix-it when people don’t know what to do next. But they do certain jobs well. One of those jobs is achieving consensus, if not unanimity, within a team about important issues. A Spanner Amnesty is designed to do just that.
It can also be an effective icebreaker, albeit with serious intent. People expect and respond well to playfulness in workshop settings. As such, a Spanner Amnesty works in a similar way to a foot massage as discussed by Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta at the beginning of Pulp Fiction.
Now look, I’ve given a million ladies a million foot massages, and they all meant something. We act like they don’t, but they do, and that’s what’s so fucking cool about them.John Travolta (Vincent Vega)
I haven’t done a million spanner amnesties, but you get the point. A well deployed Spanner Amnesty is a powerful pre-mortem exercise. Use it to help the stakeholders in a project to imagine and flush out disaster up front.
A final word from Margaret Heffernan, taken from her excellent book, Uncharted, about working with complexity and change. You don’t want people on your project with the knowledge and motive to upend it.
Making the future is a collective activity because no one person can see enough. No one can have an adequate argument alone or in an echo chamber. So the capacity to see multiple futures depends critically on the widest possible range of contributors and collaborators. Leave perspectives out and the future is incomplete or invisible. This isn’t only a democratic imperative but a frank acknowledgement that those not involved in making the future will have knowledge and motive to upend it.Margaret Heffernan, Uncharted (How uncertainty can power change)
If you liked Spanner Amnesty, you might also like Recovering Steam, about the unexpected bonus findings of consultancy projects.