John Kotter and Lorne Whitehead
Harvard Business Review Press, 192 page, $22.00
Good ideas in government often seem destined to be shot down. They have to be sold to a long line of superiors in the hierarchy, members of interest groups and the general public, and the politicians, some of whom even carry that ominous moniker, The Opposition.
It requires a strong belief in your ideas, confidence, and lots of antacids. But it also requires a strategy, and for that you may want to consider the latest book from change expert John Kotter, written with Lorne Whitehead, a leader of education innovation at the University of British Columbia.
Buy-In may seem nuts when you start reading it because it presents a counter-intuitive strategy to championing your idea. It requires you to set aside your rigorous, analytically-based arguments – and not because it suggests you simply shut out your critics, tempting as that might seem. Quite the contrary. It suggests you invite your critics into the metaphoric and literal room, taking their best shots at your idea, which you, like an aikido expert, skilfully deflect to win ultimate buy-in.
I should mention it begins with a fable. Things always work better in a fable, because it’s fiction and the authors control the story. Life is usually messier. But the fable describes a public interest matter, a proposal for a public-private partnership to get new computers for the library in a small town. It describes how the idea immediately gets attacked by people you may have met before, given their names: Pompus Meani, Avoidus Riski, Divertus Attenti, and Lookus Smarti. Very quickly, it seems the idea, under determined assault, will go down in flames. Sound familiar?
“It can be maddening,” the authors say of such situations. “You end up flustered, embarrassed, or furious. All those who would benefit from the idea lose. You lose. In an extreme case, a whole company or nation may lose.” But, they insist, that need not happen if you follow their approach.
The authors delineate 24 generic attacks you will hear, whatever your proposal: We’ve been successful; why change? Money (or some other problem a proposal does not address) is the real issue. You exaggerate the problem. You’re implying that we’ve been failing! What’s the hidden agenda here? What about this, and that, and this, and that’? Your proposal goes too far/does not go far enough. You have a chicken-and-egg problem. Sounds like [something most people dislike] to me! You’e abandoning our core values. It’s too simplistic to work. No one else does this. You can’t have it both ways. Aha! You can’t deny this, “this” being a worrisome thing that the proposers know nothing about and the attackers keep secret until just the right moment. To generate this many questions and concerns, the idea has to be flawed. We tried that before – didn’t work. It’s too difficult to understand. Good idea, but this is not the right time. It’s just too much work to do this. It won’t work here; we’re different! It puts us on a slippery slope. We can’t afford this. You’ll never convince enough people. We’re simply not equipped to do this.
The authors stress that the people raising the criticisms may not consciously want to be unfair or nasty. “Many of these questions might be raised by a person who, quite honestly, is not trying to slyly sink a good idea. But that does not make any of the attacks less potentially tricky to deal with. The reality about innocent motives has powerful implications for making a response method effective,” they note. You can’t try to overpower these innocent souls with a savage attack.
Twenty-four criticisms are a lot to handle, so to simplify, the authors crunch them into four main categories:
- Fear mongering: This raises anxieties so that a thoughtful examination of the proposal is very difficult if not impossible. There will usually be dark warnings of slippery slopes. “Once aroused, anxieties do not necessarily disappear when a person is confronted with an analytically sound rebuttal,” the authors stress. “If humans were only logical creatures, this would not be a problem. But we are not. Far from it.”
- Delay: These slow down the communication and discussion of the plan so critical buy-in can’t be achieved before a critical cut-off time or organizational attention wanders on to something else. “Because it is so easy to use, death by delay is a weapon available to nearly anyone, which makes it particularly dangerous,” they note.
- Confusion: Here you endure a fusillade of questions and criticisms that aren’t even related to one another. “What about this?” “What about that?” The discussion spirals out of control, and the audience you need to win over concludes the proposal isn’t well thought out. “A complex topic is not needed for a confusion strategy to work. Even the simplest of plans can be pulled into a forest of complexity where nearly anyone can become lost. Statistics can be powerful weapons, used not to clarify but to bewilder,” they write.
- Ridicule or character assassination: Here the verbal bullets are aimed at you, not the idea, as the critics try to make the idea’s proponent look silly. This strategy is used the least, because it can snap back at the attacker. But it does happen, and it can not only take down the idea, but in damaging your reputation reduce the chances of future proposals gaining traction.
To avoid these complaints, our first instinct when presenting ideas is to scheme to keep potential opponents out of the discussion. But the authors suggest the opposite: “Let them in. Let them shoot at you. Even encourage them to shoot at you!”
The reason is the attacks can help you solve the single biggest challenge people face when they need to get buy-in for a good idea: simply getting people’s attention. Studies suggest that in a week we can be hit with 10,000 suggestions, ideas, proposals or demands, be they written, verbal or in visual form. So let the attacks encourage people to pay attention, engaging their minds. Then use that attention to gain the intellectual and emotional commitment you require from them.
As well, don’t respond to the attacks with tons of data, logic and more logic. That can work at times, they concede, but mostly it will only offer more confusion and complicate the issue. Attention will wane – and remember, attention is what you want. Instead, give short, homespun, common sense replies. Treat every argument with respect. “You need to win hearts and minds to gain true buy-in. Simple, clear and common-sense responses can do much to win the minds. Respect can do much to win hearts,” they advise.
Here are some examples:
- When you are told you are exaggerating the problem, you respond: “To the people who suffer because of this problem, it certainly doesn’t look small.”
- When you are told your idea implies the people doing the work now are failing, you respond: “No, we’re suggesting that you are doing a remarkably good job without the needed tools (systems, methods, laws, etc.), which, in our proposal, you will have.”
- When the critic charges if this was such a good idea, why hasn’t it done before, you respond: “There really is a first time for everything, and we do have a unique opportunity.”
The authors compare it to the rope-a-dope strategy, when Muhammad Ali in his famed 1974 battle against George Foreman backed up against the ropes and let his