Not long ago I was running an initiative for an organisation when, in the course of interviewing various divisions, I found pockets of resistance. People were polite, but sceptical. There was no impetus to buy-in.

On talking this through with the key advocates of the program, we quickly identified the clear benefits of the program to the divisions in question: greater output with less delay, and a stronger basis for individual divisions to bid for extra resources.

In a subsequent workshop the program sponsor articulated these benefits, and the resistors took note. When we called for volunteers to run a pilot, the (hitherto) resistors were the first to sign on, and participated fully. It was a great outcome.

Winning Over the Resistors
How do you handle the situation where people have discretion whether they buy in to a change effort? Even if you’re a CEO who can issue the decree that a new program will be undertaken, you’ll want people to ‘sign on’.

Here are four ways to make that happen.

1. Analyse What’s in it for Them
This is one of the cardinal rules of winning friends and influencing people: appealing to people’s self-interest.

A new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system or lean improvement program may be your much loved pet project, whose benefits you perfectly understand. The key questions are: who are these benefits for? Who benefits from the benefits?

It’s critical that you analyse the benefits from the point of view of the players rather than from your own, or from a very general broad-brush perspective at 30,000 feet. Bringing the benefits clearly into focus for each player gives you the basis for a script for communicating with them, one which is clear and compelling.

The new ERP will lead to efficiencies and cost savings. Fine. But how does that translate to the people in the Operations division? Why should the Ops GM throw his support behind it? If after thinking this through it’s clear that the Ops staff will spend 20 minutes per day less doing data entry, while scheduling errors will drop by 12 percent, that’s a compelling story. All the more so if the Ops GM’s performance bonus increases as a result…

You should be able to find this information in the original business case for the project or change effort, so dig it out. Or perhaps you need to drill down from an organisation-wide benefit to a divisional benefit. In any case, ensure you can identify the benefits from each player’s perspective. My own experience from the story at the beginning bears out the importance of this.

2. Meet with People
There’s something compelling about being face-to-face with someone, which is simply not there with other forms of communication. Politicians know this, which is why even in the digital age they go out on the hustings.

I’m not sure whether it’s the more holistic experience when tone, facial expression and general appearance are communicated as well. Perhaps it’s the enhanced ability to listen (and show that you’re listening). Whatever it is, getting ‘face time’ with people makes it harder for them to resist you, and more likely that you can bring them ‘round (especially after you’ve identified the benefits for them: refer number 1 above).

3. Tweak the Solution to Create Buy-In
It’s going to be a harder sell promoting a change or program which is fully worked out in every detail: you are much more likely to gain support if you promote a clear, general direction but leave some specifics to be worked out through consultation with the players. This will enable stakeholders to apply the change to their own areas in a way that makes sense for them, and enables them to put their own stamp on the effort.

For example, they may request some particular field be added to a new IT system. Or that the new system be implemented in another area before theirs for some logistical reason. If these make sense, or at least don’t prejudice the project, accommodate them. Make the resistors feel that there’s some aspect of the project to which they can point and say “That’s mine. It’s there because I told them to put it in.”

Keep track of these so you can refer to them later to show how you accommodated people’s needs. It’s much harder for people to disown a project when it has their fingerprints all over it!

4. Go with the Grain
The great psychiatrist Milton Erickson once had a schizophrenic patient in a state hospital who thought he (the patient) was Jesus: he wrapped himself up in a sheet and walked around ‘blessing’ staff and patients. Erickson did not attempt to convince the patient that he was irrational, or to interpret his condition, as most practitioners would have done. Rather, he said to the patient “I understand you’ve had experience as a carpenter” to which the patient of course had to reply that he had. Erickson put the patient to gainful work on a hospital building project.

This is a great model for change. Don’t fight the reality that presents itself – work with it. For example, if you see your program as introducing a broad change but a key stakeholder whose support you need is risk-averse, don’t play up the sweeping aspects of the program. Rather, emphasise business-as-usual continuity and the risk mitigation aspects of the program. Pepper your communication with phrases such as ‘conservative’, ‘middle of the road’, ‘minimalist’ and ‘conventional’.

And whatever you do, don’t cross a powerful player who can stymie your project. However wrong you think they might be, do what you can to present or tweak your project to make it as palatable as possible. As John Maynard Keynes said (in a different context): ‘The market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.’ The same applies to change programs, so be aware of the realpolitik.

In this vein it’s appropriate to quote another well-known source – Machiavelli – who stated ‘…a Prince succeeds who adapts to his time, while that Prince falls who is at variance with the ways of his time.’

We’ll have more to say on adapting to the times in future newsletters, but in the meantime these four tactics should help you build and maintain support for your initiative.

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Speaking of our time and adapting to it, the heightened sense of uncertainty prevailing at present makes it all the more important to find renewal. In this vein my hope is that the festive season brings you peace and rejuvenation.

Director I Michael Carman Consulting

PO Box 686, Petersham NSW 2049 I M: 0414 383 374

Dale Carnegie (2006) How to Win Friends and Influence People Random House.
Jay Haley (1993) Uncommon Therapy W. W. Norton.
Niccolo Machiavelli (2003) The Prince Dante University Press.

© Michael Carman 2015