Return the fire when people take pot shots at your ‘great’ idea

Change guru John Kotter describes how colleagues may attack your latest inspiration and how to overcome the obstacles.

By Ronald E. Keener

Ever have a good idea — well you thought it was — shot down in a meeting with your colleagues that left you thinking, “What happened?” It happens on management teams every day, and on church staffs too.

Management and change guru John P. Kotter, well known for his books and thinking on leadership and change, and co-author Lorne A. Whitehead, an entrepreneur and professor, have written Buy-In: Saving Your Good Idea from Getting Shot Down (Harvard Business Review, 2010), that talks about getting other people to adopt your idea no matter how difficult.

Kotter is Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership, Emeritus, at Harvard Business School, and Whitehead is Leader of Education Innovation at the University of British Columbia. Church Executive asked Kotter to comment on a few questions:

A promotion on the book says, “You’ve got a good idea. You know it could make a difference. You present it to the group — but get confounding questions, inane comments, and verbal bullets in return. Before you know what’s happened, your idea is dead, shot down.”

That’s the way church staff and volunteers operate too. What is it about human nature that invites the naysayers rather than a more affirmative response out of most of us?

There are a number of reasons people shoot down good ideas. Sometimes it’s because they’re self-centered and have their own hidden agendas, but more often, it’s because the idea, for whatever reason, makes them uncomfortable or anxious. And they don’t even realize it.

Since the attacks we mention in the book have often been used on them before, they’re floating around in people’s brains and it’s easy to let one pop out. They’re not trying to be malicious — it’s driven by some kind of unconscious fear or anxiety. Ironically, it’s often pain from having one of these attacks used on us in the past, which has hardened into cynicism, that leads us to attack others.

You list 24 attacks and 24 responses. But you missed the 25th one that churches mostly hear, the famous seven words: “We’ve never done it that way before.” What is your analysis of that attack and what might a response be to it?

I think this attack is a combination of numbers 1 (We’ve been successful, so why change?), 12 (If this is such a great idea, why hasn’t it been done already), and 20 (It won’t work here, because we’re so different). A smart response incorporates tactics that will diffuse all three.

First, do not treat the person raising this attack as moronic for not seeing the need for change. Acknowledge their concern, but remind them that life evolves, and to continue to succeed, we need to be open to adapting.

Second, remind your audience that someone has to try a new idea out for the first time — and if we are the innovative organization we claim to be, why shouldn’t it be us? Third, remind them that while your organization is unique, it’s not different from others that are seeking to change for the better. And incorporate a simple, specific example that your audience can relate to. More often than not you’ll face an attack like this — one that combines elements from several different attacks — so it’s important to understand how to respond most effectively.

What separates an honest question or doubt from the obstructionists and naysayers?

Sometimes it’s impossible to tell. As I explained before, we often have these generic attack strategies floating around in our brains because they’ve been used against us in the past. So it’s easy to just whip one out, even if your real intent is just to make sure things are right, because you’re reasonable and thoughtful, or maybe you’re just a little bit skeptical of everything. Sometimes people who agree with you still want to test that you’ve done your homework, so they toss out a little question, framed as one of the 24 attacks. You answer it well, and that takes care of it.

What can one do even before the meeting to help insure a positive outcome: find allies, get the pastor on your side, define objections, sound out board members?

Preparing in advance is a key step, and while finding allies and sounding out trusted advisors can be helpful, you really need to review the common attacks that could come your way. Use them, and use Buy-In, as a sort of reference manual to focus your attention. Consider which attacks are likely to be used in your situation, look at the effective responses we provide, and think about how you might tailor them to your own idea and audience. Think through how you might respond to the attacks likely to come your way, and write down a few powerful insights that you can refer to.

You say that finding acceptance involves walking into the fray, showing respect for all, and using simple, clear and common sense responses. Why not keep the naysayers out of the meeting?

It would seem like the logical choice to keep shooters away from a proposal while you develop sufficient support to get it accepted and put in place — with no idea killers around, there are no bullets. People use this approach with a good degree of success, but we have observed that the method we use can be much more powerful. Because by allowing your idea to draw attacks solves the single biggest challenge we face when we need to win buy-in for a good idea: simply getting people’s attention. Without that, you won’t have a chance to even explain a hazard or an opportunity, along with your good, practical solution.

Think about it: Every day we are bombarded by thousands of communications vying for our attention. Emails, meeting requests, complaints, messages, instructions, and questions. People who study information overload tell us that in one week, we can be hit with 10,000 demands on our attention. In one year, that’s 520,000. So if you have 20 very good, important ideas in one year, for others, these 20 are a mere drop in the bucket of 519, 980 other plans, ideas and proposals swirling around them. With all this clogging their brains, how can you ever get them to listen carefully and thoughtfully enough to any idea you propose?

So while allowing the naysayers in will inevitably lead to attacks from anxious, confused and disruptive people, it will also add the drama and sparks you need to attract attention. And when people are paying attention, their minds become engaged, which is the crucial requirement for understanding an idea and overcoming incorrect impressions. You can use that attention to gain the intellectual and emotional commitment that is at the heart of real support.

Are there some prerequisites within an organization before “buy-in” is likely to work?

The buy-in method is powered by respect and clear communications. If an organization or group lacks both or either — and/or is unwilling to take steps to close the gap — buy-in will be difficult.

Equally critical to success is communications style. To create buy-in, leaders must communicate frequently, clearly and in a format/tone that appeals to the heart as well as the head.  If communications are detached and intellectual, buy-in will lack the powerful emotional content that breeds commitment and resiliency.

In today’s business world, when so many meetings are conducted over the phone or through WebEx conferencing, how can you really read your entire audience when you might not even be able to see them?

It’s true that it’s harder to read your audience and constantly monitor the whole group — not just your attackers  — when they aren’t physically right in front of you. While you’re on the call you need to work extra hard to keep your engagement with attackers respectful, simple and short.

Constantly ask for people to share their thoughts and feedback, encouraging attackers and supporters to speak up. Say that because you are remotely located, you want to be sure everyone is heard, every question is answered, and every point of your idea explained in full. Make an extra effort to verbally communicate that your attention is focused beyond your attackers and on helping the majority understand your idea. Not only will this ensure the whole audience is engaged, it will help you understand what people think, beyond just those vocal attackers.

Finally, you need to over communicate. What may take one or two in-person meetings to achieve will likely take many more phone calls or Web conferences. So after each one, e-mail attendees reiterating the main points of your idea and why they should support it. Solicit their feedback again. Call a few trusted friends or colleagues and ask how they thought others in the room perceived your idea and your responses to negative attacks. Use that feedback to inform how you approach the next phone call or WebEx meeting.

Why did you write this book?

Buy-in is a very basic issue. It’s the act of getting people to listen to you, understand your ideas, and overcome hesitation they have about supporting them. But asking people to support your idea is part of a much larger process, one that I’ve found throughout my research to be essential in making significant changes actually happen.

People spend a lot of time developing good ideas, maybe because of a problem they or their company face, or because they see an opportunity for positive change. But unless you can successfully garner support for your idea, from people at all levels of your organizations, you can’t move forward. Along with the team at my firm, Kotter International, we help people understand how to move forward — how to go from talking about significant, powerful change to making it happen. And in our work, we found that this one particular step — winning buy-in — is something people really struggle with. So I felt very strongly that it was something we needed to help people understand better, and learn how to do well.


Why some ideas get hammered rather than embraced

There is often a lack of respect for other peoples’ ideas — and therefore an unwillingness to listen, respond and get buy-in. Research shows that people, even experienced executives, are not very good at transformational change, or change of any significance. This is the real problem.

People back away, go into denial, try but fail miserably, or stop, exhausted, after achieving barely anything but having spent twice their budget doing it. Most organizations simply don’t understand what it takes to successfully change, and because of that, it’s exponentially harder for them to embrace new ideas. But the good news is that there is a remarkably clear pattern followed in the rare instances where organizations do change successfully — one that we’ve seen work time and again in our client engagements at Kotter International. And that is an 8-step process:

  1. Increase urgency
  2. Build a guiding coalition
  3. Get the change vision right
  4. Communicate for buy-in
  5. Empower action
  6. Create short-term wins
  7. Keep at it
  8. Make change stick

Communications and buy-in is critical during phase four but also important throughout the entire process.
If organizations start walking through these steps, beginning with creating a sense of urgency around an opportunity they want to grab, they are not guaranteed to embrace new ideas immediately, but they will eventually become more open and able to see innovative new ideas for the true value they can bring.
— John Kotter


Five keys to creating buy-in

  • Gain peoples’ attention by allowing the attackers in and letting them attack.
  • Then, win the minds of the relevant, attentive audiences with simple, clear and common-sense responses.
  • Win their hearts — most of all by showing respect.
  • Constantly monitor the people whose hearts and minds you need — i.e., the broad audience, not the
  • few attackers.
  • Prepare for these steps in advance by anticipating likely attacks and thinking through your responses.

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