Wednesday, May 09, 2007

To succeed with a new idea, engage your opponents

Imagine that you want to build a manufacturing plant using cutting-edge green technology: a living roof, solar panels, a permeable parking lot and natural stormwater filtration system. Whom do you want as your project manager?

According to Bill McDonough, the architect responsible for Ford's Rouge River plant redesign, it's someone who thinks the project is a bad idea. McDonough said so in a speech at last year's Fortune Innovation Forum.

Please stop laughing and read this quote from May's Harvard Business Review. It's from "Even Commodities Have Customers," the story of how Francois Jacques created a high-value marketing function at the world's largest cement maker.

I told you, stop laughing. Here's the quote:

I felt there would be support within the division for investment in marketing capabilities if I could demonstrate to people on the front lines that top management was really serious. I decided to begin be getting one or two divisional executives to assume some formal sponsorship role for the program. I was looking for a couple of top executives to share responsibility for the program's success or failure....

Two people...took strong positions. One told me that my plan was far too ambitious to have any hope of succeeding. The other was supportive. Looking at the profiles of each man, I realized that I had found both of my sponsors.

My instinctual reaction, when faced with opposition, is to surmount it or sidestep it (or dismiss it). McDonough's and Jacques' strategy, instead, was to embrace the opponent.

Don't do it my way. As counterintuitive as their approaches are, both McDonough and Jacques realized two very important things: active opposition equals engagement. And winning over the opponent sends a powerful signal to others that the idea has merit. [And another thing: steamrollering an opponent will guarantee he becomes a fierce enemy of the idea.]

It's crucial, though, to ensure you understand why the opponent is against the idea, and to know that the opposition is based on reasons that you can address--rather than opposition that's based on personality or power plays. Lafarge writes:

[The opponent's] extreme response indicated that he was engaged with the idea, and... I learned that much of his apparent hostility stemmed from past bad experiences with marketing in another division of Lafarge.

I'll leave you with another paraphrase from McDonough's speech.

"Vocal opponents can be your best allies. The passive resisters you've got to get rid of."

(Photo by CraigPJ via stock.xchng)

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