It’s human nature. We naturally want to spend our time with people who see the world the way we do. At the very least, we want to spend it with those who are easy to convince. But if you’re trying to lead a Process introduction or any new idea, following nature will result in either a painfully slow rate of adoption or an incredibly fast rate of failure. What you really need to do is begin working against your nature and start working with major skeptics.
What we are looking for are the thoughtful skeptics, not cynics. How do you separate the skeptics from the cynics? Cynics are down on everything. The best cynics will even reject their own ideas. H.L. Mencken said, “A cynic is someone who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.” Sidney J. Harris said, “A cynic is not merely one who reads bitter lessons from the past, he is one who is prematurely disappointed in the future.”
Skeptics, on the other hand, are people who are reasonably concerned about new ideas and approaches. They have seen many half-baked ideas and they’ve been burned more than once. They are thoughtful—they will listen and reject as opposed to just rejecting. And the people you are looking for often act as hubs on the communication network. Other people come to them when they are trying to make sense of the world.
And why does it work? When the skeptics are against your initiative, the majority of the company is against it. People who work at your company don’t have to take the time to learn the details of your new idea. They can simply listen to the evaluation of their favorite skeptic.
So when the skeptics are supportive, the landscape changes dramatically. People who would not give your ideas a decent hearing are now at least open to hearing what you have to say. The grapevine or rumor mill spreads the extraordinary fact that a skeptic is now actually helping to implement your approach. Support grows dramatically.
I was at a hospital listening to a presentation by a woman who was excellent at her job of determining what could be improved in emergency departments. In the middle of her presentation, long before the time she was ready to take questions, a man in the audience (which included the CEO and all senior staff) raised his hand. When she recognized him he asked, “Who are you?” She said she thought she had covered that at the beginning but began to introduce herself again. “No, I know your name. I want to know who you are
to come in here and tell us how to fix things you know so little about. I’ve never seen you in my ED.”
She tried to defend herself and explain the hours she had spent in this and other Emergency Departments, but he was having none of it. “Yes, but I work a lot of hours and I’ve never seen you there.” At that he walked out. I asked the COO who he was and she dismissed him as a doctor who hated management. But I thought he had potential for two very important reasons. First, he spoke publicly about his doubts. He didn’t just talk to his
colleagues about them in the coffee room. He spoke up, ready to engage anyone with whom he might disagree. Second, he had courage, which he showed by walking out of a public presentation being put on for the CEO. He obviously didn’t care if he was moving against the direction of the entire organization.
I made an appointment to meet with him near the end of his next shift in the ER. He came out of an exam room, saw me, made the connection that I had been sitting with the leading administrators, and launched into a 20-minute assault on management, in whose ranks he explicitly included me. I listened. I actually took notes because his insights were good. When he finished and came up for breath, I told him that now I understood. “You understand what?” he asked. I said I was told he was someone who hated management but I now understood he simply hated crap management.
He smiled and invited me to his office where I listened some more and then asked him what problem he had that was giving him the most trouble. (Here I’ll shorten the story to fit blog limits.) I suggested that we look at the problem through the lens of Process using some simple tools. If it worked, great. If it didn’t, he would never have me around wasting his time again.
It did work, and he was pleased to have at least an explanation, if not yet a solution, for this problem that had bothered him and his emergency department for decades. As we went to work on the solution, imagine how much easier my job was when the most vocal skeptic took me around and personally introduced me to the key players in the ED with the statement, “Pay attention to this guy. He’s got some great ideas.”
These process ideas are great ideas. And if you can get your best skeptics to understand and support them, you’ll have a much better chance of getting the rest of the organization to support them, too.
Ron Donovan, Hammer and Company Senior Faculty Member
Instructor, Leading and Maintaining the Transition to Process
Washington, December 3-5