Nothing Gets Approved Without This

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There’s a bad habit pervasive at work: not knowing what’s important to your boss and/or other people involved in approving your projects.

You keep sending project updates, adding more data to your PowerPoint presentations, researching additional industry best practices, writing emails warning that you need approvals now so as not to incur greater costs or fall behind deadlines.

And you hear nothing from your boss or client.

You complain to your team mates and become more and more frustrated. It’s like spitting in the wind.

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I’ve heard this story over and over again in advising project teams and self-identified Rebels at Work.

‘Do you know what’s most important to your boss? Is your project or proposal addressing what’s most important to her,’ I ask.


And then a quick, "Wait, what?" and recognition of something so obvious people can't believe they have forgotten to do it.

They don’t know what’s most important to their boss. (As an aside: there’s often a disconnect between stated goals and what’s most important.)

This is why so many good ideas and projects get stalled. Bosses focus on what’s most important and ignore ideas that they don’t see as relevant.

Some suggestions:

  1. Ask your boss (or clients or others with whom you need cooperation) what’s most important to them and why.
  2. Show people how your idea supports what’s important.
  3. When seeking feedback, ask how important on a scale of 1-10 the proposed idea is to them. If it’s six or below, realize you're probably not going to make much progress. It’s not a priority. Put your energy somewhere else.
  4. Ask what would move the idea from a six to an eight or nine.
  5. During a meeting when people start talking why an idea won’t work stop the negativity quickly by asking, “How important on a scale of 1-10 is this idea to us?”  If it’s not important, move on to a different topic. If it IS important, reframe the conversation to “this idea will work IF we…” vs. “this won’t work because…”

Lastly, remember that bosses love learning what the organization can STOP doing. When you have a clear understanding of what’s important, earn credibility and trust by recommending what to stop.

It’s disappointing to learn that a great idea or new approach isn’t important. But the sooner you know, the sooner you can focus on what does matter.

ps – For all you bosses out there, be proactive and explain what is most important on a regular basis. You have no idea how much work and wasted energy goes on by bright people on your team.

Rebels at Work and the Narcissism of Small Differences

It is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of strangeness and hostility between them. ~Sigmund Freud

I've mentioned a couple of times Adam Grant's new book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. I've done so for the self-serving reason that my Rebel at Work story is captured in Chapter 3. And the other self-serving reason is to remind you that Adam is one of the experts we feature in our learning video: Be a Brave, Big-Hearted Rebel at Work.Be a Brave Big Heared Rebel Video Cover

But this time it's to clue you in to what I consider the most powerful chapter for Rebels at Work in Adam's book--the chapter on creating and maintaining coalitions: Goldilocks and the Trojan Horse. Lois and I have observed that successful Rebels at Work don't do it alone. Often their first step is to form alliances with others; that's certainly what we would recommend. Adam Grant's chapter explores the realities and subtleties of coalitions. His stories and observations not only led me to reflect on past mistakes but also to realize for the first time just how many I'd made.

Adam orients his lessons for building coalitions around the story of the American suffragette movement of the 19th century. Early on the suffrage movement suffered a crippling split when Lucy Stone, one of the first voices for women's suffrage, couldn't agree with Susan Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton on important movement issues, and vice-versa. Among the issues that divided them was the push to grant the vote to African-American men. Stone supported the right to vote for ex-slaves even if it occurred before woman's suffrage. But not Anthony and Stanton, who were so committed to their cause that they even struck an alliance with a racist opponent of African-American suffrage. Other issues divided Stone from the other two, more-famous suffragettes with Stanton and Anthony holding what could be fairly described as the more extreme positions. Eventually Anthony's and Stanton's disdain for moderation, at one point they allied with the first woman to run for US president--on a sexual freedom platform, cost them supporters and lost them potential victories at the state level. Their organization and woman's suffrage suffered.

Adam Grant labels this tendency of change agents to fight each other as the narcissism of small differences. Another term for it is horizontal hostility. Research shows (and I bet your own experiences confirm) that groups battling a fierce status quo often disparage more mainstream groups even when they are all trying to make progress in the same general direction. In politics, for example, political parties can feel more visceral hatred for their potential coalition allies than toward their common opponents. I experienced this firsthand in change efforts I was involved in; many believed I was too willing to compromise just to make some progress. Striking a balance between your ideals and the need to show forward movement is never easy, but change agents that can find the "Goldilocks" spot enjoy better odds. As Adam Grant writes: "to draw allies into joining the cause itself, what's needed is a moderately tempered message that is neither too hot nor too cold, but just right."

A couple more points in the chapter are worth calling out. Adam recounts how the suffragette leader Lucy Stone and others pursued alliances with the 19th century temperance movement. Although the women backers of prohibition were more socially conservative than the suffragettes, they were able to combine forces to win important victories particularly at the state level. This story reminds me of how useful it can be for change agents to pursue their ideas through adjacencies. When an issue faces tough resistance, it's often more effective to approach the change indirectly by working first on an adjacent issue.

Adam Grant also makes the case for why rebels should try to turn opponents into allies. This is daunting but worthwhile. "...{O}ur best allies aren't the people who have supported us all along. They're the ones who started out against us and then came along to our side." And why is that? Well, one reason is because a reformed opponent is the most effective proselytizer of others to join our cause.

Adam Grant writes that on her deathbed Lucy Stone whispered four last words to her daughter: Make the World Better. I can't think of a better motto for Rebels at Work.

Communicating new ideas

clarity illustration Most rebels do a great job at bringing passion and enthusiasm when talking about their ideas, which is essential for getting people’s attention. In addition to this positive energy, there are a handful of communications fundamentals to master so that people understand your idea, consider its merits, and lend their support.

Show what’s at stake

To get people’s attention, frame your idea in terms of what people care about. Show how the idea relates to what they want.

If there’s nothing at stake, if there are no emotionally compelling risks or rewards for acting on your idea, people will probably ignore it. A common mistake we’ve seen is that people launch into the details of how their new idea will work before doing the much more important work of communicating why it matters so much.

So step one is jolting people awake to understand why your idea matters so much to what’s important to them. The more relevant your idea is to what everyone wants to achieve, the more likely people will consider it. The more your idea rescues people from a fear or frustration that is getting more acute every day, the more they will consider it. Similarly, the more widely and/or deeply felt the issue or topic, the more likely people will consider it.

Paint a picture of what could be

Emotions get people to consider an idea and influence decisions. Paint a picture of how your idea creates a better situation. Expose the gap between how things work today and how they could work. Make the status quo unappealing.

Paint a picture of how much better things will be with your ideas in place. You want to make the status quo unappealing and the alternative a much better option, so much better that it will be worth the work to get there. Walk people through how things will work differently with your new approach. Help them feel this new way of doing things, evoking a positive emotional response. Remember: people make decisions based on emotions, either the desire to flee from pain or to seek relief and rewards.

Show that the idea can work

Highlight what it will take to be successful and where the greatest risks lie. Show the milestones that will need to be achieved. This demonstrates that you’ve done your homework and thought through the risks, uncertainties, and practicalities.  People support ideas (and people) that they think will be successful.  

Show the gap between the ideal and where things are today, and briefly highlight the milestones for closing the gap and getting to the ideal. Avoid communicating all the details. You don’t want or need to drill down into specific details in a meeting where you’re trying to get buy in and support. We’ve seen too many great concepts die an early death because the blizzard of “how it will work” details buried big idea.

You do, however, need to have done your research so that the milestones you present are realistic, doable, and make sense based on how things get done where you work. This makes people comfortable. It helps them see that while anything new is fraught with uncertainty, you have been thinking about the risks and have thought about ways to minimize them.

Build support

Mobilize people to support the idea. If 10% of the people in an organization believe in an idea, it is highly likely it will be adopted.

Before doing any formal presentations, talk with people you like and trust at work about the “what’s at stake” and “what could be.”

Communicating a new idea is about developing relationships, learning from others, asking for their help in making the idea better, and enlisting their support to be able to make the idea happen. A mistake rebels make is thinking that the way to get an idea approved is to present it to the management team, which will either say yes or no.

The way to bring an idea to life is helping people see the value in the idea for them, and asking them to help be part of the effort. Socialize your idea with many people, and work hard to get those one or two first followers who will also take ownership of the idea and start to talk about it.   The first followers provide credibility to you and the idea and often can be more influential than anyone in positional authority.

Once the first followers get behind the idea, work together to influence 10 percent of the people in your organization.

Why 10 percent? Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when 10 percent of the people in a group believe in an idea, the majority of the people will adopt their belief

“When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority,” says Boleslaw Szymanski, the Claire and Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor at Rensselaer. “Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.”

If there are 200 people in your organization, that means you need to get 20 people behind your idea, willing to stand up to the powers that be to say, “We should do this.” With just 20 people supporting an idea, it is likely to be adopted. That’s not so daunting, is it?

Even if there are 1,000 people in your department or community, 10 percent support means 100 people. Not all 1,000: you need just 100 to get leadership’s attention, interest others in considering an alternative new way,  and get funding for an experiment.

So create a tribe or community, not just a PowerPoint presentation. Being a rebel is not about being a hero or lone wolf; it’s about creating better ways to work with and for our co-workers. The energy, ideas and support from a collaborative group are much more

Be positive and succinct

Show enthusiasm, but don’t get so carried away talking that you fail to listen for others’ thoughts and good ideas. How we communicate is as important as what we communicate.

When you embark on your effort to change THAT WHICH REFUSES TO BUDGE, act as if success is just around the corner. Be cheerful! Be emotional! Show some enthusiasm. There's nothing less appealing than a dour reformer.

On the other hand, don’t let your enthusiasm turn you into a boor. We’ve all probably sat through presentations where the person drones on and on. There are flow charts, project timelines, quotes, charts so detailed that you can hardly read them, and a running commentary that never stops for ideas or questions. Don’t be that person.

And if people don't like what you have to say?

If you’ve communicated clearly about how to solve a relevant problem and people don’t like your ideas, it’s wise to pause and assess whether the issue is important enough to keep going, despite the lukewarm reception.

If the answer is, “Yes, this change effort can make a big difference,” or “The organization is at risk if it doesn’t move in this area,” it’s time to learn one of the most important rebel lessons of all: how to navigate controversy and conflict.

What else?

What else, rebel friends, have you found to be helpful in communicating new ideas inside your organization?

Happy planning season!

FocusIt's that time of year -- business planning, which means this is a great time to show how your idea supports whatever your organization's 2014 mantra may be. I've been fortunate over the past few months to facilitate strategic planning sessions in several very different industry sectors. Yet all shared a common theme:

How can we better focus, collaborate and simplify work?

If you were trying to get a new idea approved  in one of these companies or universities, a useful strategy would show how your idea simplifies work, develops greater collaboration, and focuses on the organization's most important goal.

What topics are creeping into conversations where you work?  Can you link your  idea to one of those topics? Show how your idea is a way to achieve what executives are yearning for?

Ideas that support what an organization most wants to achieve are ideas that gain traction.

"Tis the season to get your idea positioned and approved.