KotBuyi 11-03-026


*Saving Your Good Idea from Getting Shot Down


John P. Kotter and Lorne A. Whitehead

Harvard Business Review Press, 2010, 192 pp.  ISBN 978-1-4221-5729-9


Kotter says there are a handful of familiar types of questions used against new ideas everywhere.  These are commonly expressed in a couple of dozen ways and he gives a suggested common sense response for each one to keep your idea alive and build support for it.  A story illustrates this counterintuitive process, after which it is explained. 


John Kotter, author of Leading Change, is one of America's foremost authorities on leadership and change.  He is joined in this work by the Leader of Education Innovation at the University of British Columbia. 


Part One - The Centerville Story

1.  The Death of a Good Plan

You are presenting to the Citizens Advisory Committee for the Centerville Library a plan for Centerville Computers to supply a new computer to the Centerville Library for every six computers Centerville residents purchase from the computer company.  The library badly needs the computers and doesn't have the funds.  Where will this proposal run into trouble?


The characters who derail good ideas:  Pompus Meani (who wants to look important), Avoidus Riski, Allis Welli, Divertus Attenti, Heidi Agenda, Spaci Cadetus, Lookus Smarti, Bendi Windi.  (You can interpret the names.)


2. Saving the Day in Centerville, Part One

Here are the suggested ways of handling the challengers.

  • "Don't be afraid of distracters.  Handled correctly, they can actually help you!
  • Always respond in ways that are simple, straight-forward, and honest.
  • Show respect for everyone.
  • Watch the audience (not just the people shooting at you).
  • Anticipate and prepare for attacks in advance."  (16)


"A simple response can fight confusion and delays.  Straightforwardness undermines character assassination.  Respect prompts, in return, respect for you and your idea.  A constant eye on the audience whose support you need keeps you from making the dangerous mistake of focusing only on the aggravating disruptors.  Preparation helps you anticipate how people might totally confuse the conversation….  And…jumping into the fray, walking up to the lions instead of running away, can actually turn attacks to your advantage, as long as you are respectful, crisp, sensitive to the entire audience, and so on." (17) 


The goal is not to win the hearts and minds of all who disagree but the majority, more than 51%.  (27)  You need a lot of people feeling the idea is important so it doesn't get shelved when it runs into problems being implemented.  (34) 


3. Saving the Day in Centerville, Part Two

Less can be more in responding to veiled attacks. 


People can "what-if" you forever.  So you respond that new ideas always raise more questions than can be answered at first but all the concerns will be addressed in due course. (42) 


4. Saving the Day in Centerville, Part Three


Part Two - The Method

5.  Four Ways to Kill a Good Idea

The four ways good ideas get derailed are by fear mongering, delay, confusion, and ridicule.  


Fear mongering raises frightening risks, beginning with an undeniable fact and spinning a tale ending with frightening consequences.  This is manipulative but effective.  The attacker often uses words that arouse unpleasant feelings because they are associated with other known negative consequences.  Anxiety builds.


Delays can make a project miss its window of opportunity or lose momentum to other ideas that are not as good. 


Some questions muddle the conversation with irrelevant facts, convoluted logic, or multiple alternatives that prevent clear and intelligent discussion.  You can be drawn into such complex discussions that everyone gets lost and loses interest. 


Some verbal bullets are aimed at the presenter rather than the idea, questioning competence, homework, character, or intelligence.  Some verbal bombs include two or three of the above.


But these attacks can ricochet back on the attackers if well handled. 


Here are the basic ideas behind a few of the 24 common questions: 

1. We've been successful; why change?

3. You exaggerate the problem.

4. You're implying that we've been failing.

6. What about this, and that, and this, and that…?

10. You're abandoning our core values.

16. We tried this before -- didn't work.

17. It's too difficult to understand.

18. Good idea, but this is not the right time.

20. It won't work here; we're different.

24. We're simply not equipped to do this.  (84-5)


6. A Counterintuitive Strategy for Saving Your Good Idea

There is only one response method with a handful of interrelated elements:

Capture people's attention.  While you have their attention, win over their minds.  And win over their hearts. 


The counterintuitive part is this:  "Don't scheme to keep potential opponents…out of the discussion.  Let them in.  Let them shoot at you.  Even encourage them to shoot at you!" (88)


When there is drama, people pay attention and their minds are engaged.  This is crucial for understanding an idea, overcoming misguided objections, and gaining support.  (91) 


Don't try to overcome attacks with tons of data and extended logic.  Make clear and simple common sense responses.  Clear the fog.  (92) 


Do not treat the attacker with anger, condescension, or ridicule (even if you're sorely tempted).  You draw in your audience emotionally when you listen carefully and sympathetically.  Respect can win over many hearts.  (95, 97)  Calm, self-confidence is key. 


Don't be pulled into a debate with a few.  Focus on the reactions of the majority.  Watch for nodding heads, for smiles or frowns, for growing energy or lethargy.  (99)


Do your homework in advance.  Anticipate objections.  Don't try to wing it. 


The method:

1. "Gain people's attention by allowing the attackers in and letting them attack.

2. Then win the minds of the relevant, attentive audience with simple, clear, and commonsense responses.

3. Win their hearts by, most of all, showing respect.

4. Constantly monitor the people whose hearts and minds you need: the broad audience, not the few attackers.

5. Prepare for these steps in advance, with the idea in this book."  (103)


7.  Twenty-four Attacks and Twenty-Four Responses

Here is a selection of attacks and responses.


1. Attack: "We've never done this in the past, and things have always worked out okay.

Response: True.  But surely we have all seen that those who fail to adapt eventually become extinct." (108)


2. A: "Money is the issue, not … (computers, product safety, choice of choir songs, etc).

      R: "Extra money is rarely what builds truly great ventures or organizations." (110)


6.  A: "Your proposal leaves too many questions unanswered.  What about this and that, and this and that, and …

      R: "All good ideas, if they are new, raise dozens of questions that cannot be answered with certainty."  (122)


7.  A: "Your proposal doesn't go nearly far enough."

      R: "Maybe, but our idea will get us started moving in the right direction and will do so without further delay." (124)


10.  A: "You are abandoning our traditional values."

         R: "This plan is essential to uphold our traditional values."  (130)


12.  A: "If this is such a great idea, why hasn't it been done already?"

         R: "There really is a first time for everything, and we do have a unique opportunity." (137)


14.  The "gotcha" problem raises an issue you haven't heard before and haven't prepared for.  So say honestly that you are hearing it for the first time.  Don't try to invent a solution on the spot.  Say that you will have to look into the issue.  "But, point out a simple and logical truth.  For every other issue that you have studied, you have found a solution.  In light of that fact, is it really unreasonable to say that the same will happen in this case?  So thanks for alerting us to the potential problem… and thank all of you here who have already alerted us to problems--which have all since been solved." (143)


16.  A: "We tried that before, and it didn't work."

         R: "That was then.  Conditions inevitably change (and what we propose probably isn't exactly what was tried before)." (146)


19.  A: "This seems too hard!  I'm not sure we are up for it."

         R: "Hard can be good.  A genuinely good new idea, facing time consuming obstacles, can both raise our energy level and motivate us to eliminate wasted time." (159)


20.  A: "It won't work here, because we are so different."

         R: "Yes it's true, we're different, but we are also very much the same." (161)


8. A Quick Reference Guide for Saving Good Ideas

What if good ideas are crushed twenty times per day in a big organization?  That's more than 5000 good ideas shot down in just one year?  How much does that cost your organization?