Simon Terry

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Getting Past The Obvious

One of the commonest forms of corporate sabotage of change is to raise a difficult issue as an obvious objection. The challenge is not raising them but working to resolve them through conversation. Don’t accept the obvious.

Present a new idea or try to make a change in a large organisation and at some point you will encounter the following behaviour. Somebody will to raise a complex and difficult issue as an obvious barrier to the success of your project. They will frame their naysaying in the name of straight talk, speaking on behalf of others, being a devil’s advocate or even helpfully raising an issue that others may be too supportive or politically correct to discuss.

These conversations appear everywhere:

  • “We need to make changes to adapt to digital” “But, let’s look at these digital competitors. They are tiny and none of them are making money. Why should we copy them? We will have to give up a lot of margin if we do.”
  • “We are planning to be more diverse in our hiring” “But, and I hate to say this, if we are honest we haven’t found the talent available for the roles we have and I’m not even sure they are interested.”
  • “We want the organisation to be more collaborative” “But, we need to be realists and recognise we have demanding targets, a headcount reduction and if we asked them our people would tell you they are already busy”
  • “We want to be more innovative” “But, isn’t innovation just the latest consulting buzzword? Our customers don’t want costly innovation. They want a lower price”

The objection is carefully designed to appeal to an ‘obvious’ point and to make the speaker appear intelligent for having considered a wider range of issues than you have presented. Many of these issues are valid challenges that your project needs to address.  Many are also overblown or illusions. The challenge is that the speaker expects the ‘obvious’ to be a definitive answer. Even if you can create a conversation about ways to move forward past this issue, the speaker won’t be contributing to the solution.

Getting Past the Obvious

Here are some suggestions to avoid this issue

Anticipate the Obvious: If it is going to be raised anyway, it is better that you raise the issue yourself. Challenge yourself and your team to engage stakeholders early and flush out the obvious and not so obvious objections that might be in your path. Understanding the likely objections and potential responses is an important part of handling this challenge.  Preparation will also give you the best chance to dispute a throway remark in the moment with facts and evidence.

Hold the Tension: The person raising the obvious issue expects the conversation and your project to end. Resolving difficult issues requires hard conversations. Plan for this hard conversation and allow yourself the time to keep your stakeholders in this hard conversation until progress is made. Create an environment where this challenging issue can be discussed and progress or new perspectives might be found.

Bring the System into the Room: The challenge comes from bringing a selective part of the system around your project into the room. You need to consider how you can involve a broader view of the project and its stakeholders. Can you bring out broader benefits that make persisting worthwhile? Can you bring other voices into the conversation to offset the obvious?

Reframe the Obvious: The obvious remark may also hold a clue as to the path to its solution. Look at the examples above. If margin is the issue, then what if profit is lost to unmet disruption. If a stock of talent is the issue, how do we redefine, find or create a flow of talent. If workload is the issue, how can collaboration help. If price is the issue, how can innovation drive value.

Ask to Do the Work: A lot of obvious issues turn out to be no issue at all in practice. They are built on untested assumptions, rumours and guesswork. Ask to do the work. Ask for a richer conversation with a wider group of stakeholders. Ask to put the issue to the test by doing an experiment, a pilot or gathering real data. Too many obvious barriers are only barriers around conference tables.

Don’t accept the obvious issue as a barrier to the progress of your project. Your stakeholder may not even care. They might just want to appear clever in the meeting. Do the preparation and the work and you will carry your project far beyond the obvious issues. The real challenges are the issues nobody anticipates.


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