Many a good idea has been sabotaged by a co-worker who, during a presentation, cuts right in to say, “That’s a good idea but…” Readers of this article will learn what tactics they can use to effectively disarm and discourage such a saboteur and allow their ideas to be heard fully and ultimately win acceptance.
“And another good idea is lost”
“Thank you. That concludes my presentation. Are there any questions?”
Samantha has just presented her proposal to the Capital Investment Committee. She has done everything right so far. Her team was tasked with finding an “out-of –the-box” solution to a critical problem. They consulted widely within the company, with customers, and outside experts. When a great solution emerged they checked in with the various interest groups. They adapted to feedback and kept key influencers informed. Their clear, concise proposal outlines the main factors, the need for this proposed innovation, the method followed to develop the proposal, the alternatives that were considered and the advantages and risks of their recommendation. They were also careful to get the “look and feel” right – their process was professional and appropriate. It was all textbook classic.
At first, a few committee members ask Samantha some pretty innocuous questions. But then, all of a sudden, Dan Jones clears his throat and the room falls silent. Here’s the thing about Dan Jones – he knows how to act like a team player, but in truth, he isn’t one. In this case, Dan sees Samantha’s rapid career advancement as a personal threat.
He speaks: “Samantha, I appreciate your group’s hard work, but in all honesty, I have to question whether this was appropriate because [blah-blah…worry-worry…], so I move that before we consider your “scheme” it should first be referred to the Legal Issues Committee where these concerns can be properly addressed.”
Samantha opens her mouth but she just can’t find the right words. Dan’s attack (and that’s really what it is) feels unfair and unjustified, but right now, at this critical moment, she does not have a simple, effective rebuttal. She feels that whatever she says will make matters worse. But she has to say something, and even as she speaks she knows her comments aren’t responding well to Dan’s “gotcha.” So, the pile-on begins. First, one person picks up a detail in her response and asks a question that she cannot entirely understand or answer. Then, Dan comes in with another zinger. She looks around the room for support. Silence.
The committee votes to send Samantha’s proposal to what might as well be called the Committee for Infinite Delay. As a result, the company misses an important opportunity. In a few months, Samantha will leave. She’ll be OK – but will the company she left behind also be OK?
Does this scenario seem familiar? We have all witnessed, far too often, excellent ideas that die, even though they have been very well communicated. They die for reasons that are not completely rational. This can be infuriating and, more importantly, result in huge opportunity costs for the company.
It shouldn’t have to be this way. Moreover, for business leaders today, such lost opportunities are simply not acceptable. The stakes are higher and the challenges greater now because our world is changing at a much more rapid pace than ever. Businesses have always had to adapt in order to survive, and this has always been a challenge because adaptation requires good ideas, consumes resources, and entails risk. But today the rate of change is easily twice what it was 20 years ago. Yet the resources and expertise available for adapting to change have increased very little, if at all.
John Kotter, professor emeritus of Harvard Business School, has focused significant research on the challenge of large-scale change. From this research he has developed an 8-Step Process for Leading Change. Critical to the success of this model is the concept of engaging the organization – creating buy-in for the change. We wrote our book, Buy-In: Saving Your Good Idea from Being Shot Down, to help address some of the challenges in getting that critical engagement and support. The only way to overcome these challenges is to develop an understanding of the problem and some possible solutions. In the book and in this article, we will show you a counterintuitive, yet highly effective method to ensure that important good ideas can prevail. But first, we need to understand the problem of why people shoot down good ideas.
Why would anyone want to kill a good idea? Most of our co-workers are decent people who want good things to happen. But people are also complex, and many of us, from time to time, may be susceptible to common, human failings that can lead to the premature demise of a good idea. These failings may include: jealousy; fear; complacency; confusion; conflict of interest; short sightedness; vanity; and gullibility. However, the causes do not really matter – you can only respond to the behavior, namely the launching of challenging attacks to your ideas. The best antidote (a respectful, clear, short, simple rebuttal) serves you well, regardless of the attacker’s motivation.
We’ve observed that these attacks all share several characteristics. They can be used to strike almost any good idea (which makes them useful for habitual attackers); they can be easily customized to suit the idea at hand (which makes them appear thoughtful and worth considering); they can seem well-intended (which builds sympathy for the attacker); and they are very difficult to refute if you are not prepared for them (which is why they usually work so well).
Through our research, we have identified 24 distinctly different attacks that are commonly used. It seems a bit daunting, because this is too many for most of us to memorize. But we have devised some simple, straightforward and easy-to-remember ways to understand and combat attacks.
Four tactics people use to attack good ideas
There are four underlying tactics for shooting down a leader’s suggested plan or proposal. Sometimes these tactics are used in combination. These are:
Delay. Your opponent makes a reasonable-sounding case that we should wait (just a bit) until some other project is done, or that we should send this back into committee (just to straighten up a few points), or (just) put off the activity until the next budget cycle. He may then divert attention to another legitimate, pressing issue: There’s the sudden budget shortfall, the unexpected announcement from a competitor, the growing problem here, the escalating conflict there. This attack works well most of the time, often causing an irreversible slow-down in getting the group’s buy-in.
Confusion. Your opponent raises questions or concerns that so muddle the conversation with irrelevant facts, convoluted logic, or so many alternatives that it is impossible to have clear, intelligent dialogue upon which to build support for your idea (“If you will look at page 46 in the document I just passed out, it suggests that market share in China will fall within three years, and if you go to page 58…”). The conversation slides into endless side discussions. Eventually, people conclude that the idea has not been well thought-out. Or they feel stupid because they cannot follow the conversation, which causes anger that easily flows back toward you and your proposal.
Fear mongering. Someone seizes on an undeniable fact (“Your idea sounds a lot like the project we launched three years ago”) and then spins a tale around it, outlining consequences that can be truly frightening or, more often than not, simply push people’s hot buttons (“That failed, and several people on our team were laid off.”) The logic that connects a past fact to an imagined outcome will often be faulty, even silly, but it can still be very effective. Once aroused, the crowd’s anxieties won’t necessarily disappear when you offer an analytically sound rebuttal.
Ridicule. Your opponent doesn’t shoot bullets directly at the idea; she targets the person or people behind the concept instead. Usually this works best when the attack is sugar coated. You may be made to look silly, incompetent, hypocritical, or worse. This tactic is used less than the others, probably because it can backfire so easily on the attacker. But when it works, there can be collateral damage: Not only is the idea wounded, your reputation may be tarnished and your credibility takes a hit—hurting not only this idea but possibly future ones as well.
How can you overcome such attacks?
To combat the use of these tactics, we have developed methods for saving your good idea from getting shot down. They are a bit counterintuitive. As with many thing that are more an art than a science, they require both the right attitude and the right actions. The keys to responding to an attack are:
Don’t push away opposing viewpoints; let the lions into the arena. As you try to build support for your idea, you may be inclined to clear the field of people who you think may oppose your good idea. Maybe you leave them off an e-mail distribution list or schedule meetings or teleconferences when you know the most disruptive types will be away. That may seem smart, some people have even had success with such approaches. But it is more powerful to use opposing viewpoints as a platform for gaining the attention and engagement your idea is going to need. With more attention, you have a better chance to make your case. You may even draw some sympathy or admiration because you’re willing to stand in front of a firing squad.
Don’t respond with endless data and logic; simple common sense can be more powerful. It’s only natural, when your fabulous idea is attacked, to go over it again, explaining all its virtues in detail while emphasizing all those places where your opponent has gotten it wrong, wrong, wrong. For a very short while it may make you feel better, but it won’t work. It’s better to keep your responses—all of them—short and focused, allowing no time for thoughts to wander from the topic at hand. No jargon, no complex arguments, just a generous dose of common sense. This can be particularly effective in warding off confusion attacks by removing the swirl of alternatives that may cloud people’s minds.
Always be respectful; don’t let it get personal; don’t fight back. It’s critical to bite your tongue, no matter how tempted you may be to lash out against what you perceive to be an unfair reaction to or representation of your idea. Gaining buy-in is as much about making an emotional connection as an intellectual one, and encouraging mutual respect in a heated discussion about a proposal can go a long way toward winning hearts. Of course, we’re hardwired to want to fight, run away, or defend ourselves when attacked. But talking sensibly and respectfully works better. The more mindful we are of how easily dysfunctional behavior can pop up, the easier it is for us to keep others in check.
Focus on the crowd; not the attacker. It is natural, when hit with confusion, fear mongering, character assassination, or delay strategies, to focus one’s attention on the attacker. That’s a big mistake. At the risk of stating the obvious again, remember: You are seeking buy-in from a solid majority, which need not include those few who really want to sink the proposal. So don’t allow yourself to get sucked into a debate with a few disrupters, thereby losing touch with the quiet majority you need to reach. If you don’t pay sufficient attention to them, you may not realize in time that they are becoming confused, afraid, or being drawn into a delay. Watch the crowd very carefully for signs that you are losing their attention. Scan the nodding heads for smiles or frowns, for growing energy or the lack thereof.
Carry out careful, case-specific, preparation. Generally, you will find it very helpful to review the 24 specific generic attacks we identify in Buy-In, before you face the inquisition. The Appendix below lists some of the most common ones and includes generic effective responses for each. They are presented in a deliberately simplistic manner, for you to enhance. If the stakes are high enough, you may benefit from holding a small group-brainstorming session in which you review the possible forms of attack. For each, it’s very helpful to consider specific ways that an attacker may approach your particular situation. This is easier than it sounds, because in any given case, many of the attacks won’t apply, while others may be quite obvious and won’t need much thought. But for the attacks you find both relevant and tricky–could be 5, could be 14– brainstorming will be invaluable. You will uncover potential attacks that you otherwise would have missed, and you will discover the benefit of having a respectful, effective response at your fingertips when you really need it. This homework needn’t take long and it is more than worth the effort, because very few of us can respond well in real time to completely unexpected attacks.
Samantha was blind-sided by Dan’s diversionary delay tactic. Like many of us, she did not respond well to this unexpected attack. Had she prepared herself, she would have been able to respond smoothly by acknowledging Dan’s concern, while assuring the group that her team will successfully address it, just like the many others that were solved while developing the proposal. Samantha should have confidently communicated that the task was well in hand and that the proposal should continue on its course, welcoming feedback in the process. The method proposed here for fending off unfair idea-killing attacks offers a straightforward way to prepare for the dreaded, inevitable unknown. It also can give you the confidence Samantha lacked. As a result, you will be able to reflect and react faster and more effectively during tough discussions. The net result will be that good ideas will more often be adopted, which will help both their proponents and their intended beneficiaries throughout our society.
APPENDIX: Some familiar and generic attack forms
Below is a sampling of the 24 generic attacks mentioned in this article. A generic response is suggested to help brainstorm each one. For the full listing of attacks and their responses visit http://kotterinternational.com/KotterPrinciples/BuyIn/AttacksAndResponses.aspx.
#1 We’ve never done this in the past and things have always worked out OK.
True. But surely we have all seen that those who fail to adapt eventually become extinct.
#3 You are exaggerating. This is a small issue for us if it is an issue at all.
To the good people who suffer because of this problem, it certainly doesn’t look small.
#14 I’m sorry – you mean well, but look at this problem you’ve clearly missed! You can’t deny the significance of this issue!
No one can deny the significance of the issue you have raised, and, yes, we haven’t explored it. But every potential problem we have found so far has been readily solved. So in light of what has happened again and again and again, I am today confident that this new issue can also be handled, just like all the rest.
#16 We tried that before and it didn’t work.
That was then. Conditions inevitably change (and what we propose probably isn’t exactly what was tried before).
#18 Good idea, but it’s the wrong time. We need to wait until this other thing is finished (or this other thing is started, or the situation changes in a certain special way).
The best time is almost always when you have people excited and committed to make something happen. And that’s now.
#23 It will be impossible to get unanimous agreement with this plan.
You are absolutely right. That’s almost never possible, and that’s OK.