Almost every “leading innovation” framework, model, and training program begins with the recognition that in order to innovate within an organization, leaders and individual contributors must “challenge the orthodoxies” (which is another way of saying force yourself to think differently about the things you take for granted or assume will be the same forever). There are several iconic examples of organizations that failed to innovate because they didn’t challenge the status quo:
Kodak – Their own R&D department invented digital photography but leadership didn’t want to invest in a business that would “cannibalize” their camera, chemicals, and paper businesses
Blockbuster – Didn’t understand or embrace streaming technology as Netflix did and put Blockbuster out of business.
Blackberry – Became an early world leader in the smartphone market but failed to recognize the desire for touchscreens and applications like Apple thinking their brand loyalty would be a competitive advantage.
But this blog is not about how to lead innovation or develop a new business strategy; it’s about the challenge leaders face when they are able to read the weak signals, challenge the status quo, develop an innovative solution, but then run into the brick wall of skeptics and critics who say it “can’t” be done or look for every reason in the world why not to change.
During the past several years I’ve had the chance to work with and brainstorm with executives and other senior leaders and I can definitely say that to a person they all share there is nothing more frustrating to a leader than evolving new idea by challenging the status quo only to have the naysayers shoot down the ideas because they are afraid of change or it negatively impacts them by taking away power, resources, or even their jobs.
Based on research from the academic world, the consulting world, and our own experiences running business simulations, as well as leadership and business acumen training programs, here are five quick tips to help you lead past the skeptics:
Over communicate and explain in big picture terms
In the corporate world, there is no such thing as too much communication. Successful leaders pushing past the skeptics communicate, share, and talk in big picture terms rather than getting caught up in all the details that can only confuse some people.
All of the change leadership data illustrates that the most successful leaders are able to manage the expectations of their people. That means being authentic, acknowledge the realities, and share will people the truth about what to expect. Over-selling a significant change to the status quo is never a good thing.
Adjust to their style; give them the facts and details
Many “critics and naysayers” are generally skeptical people in terms of their personality styles. And as we know from personality styles, every style has its strengths and limitations and sometimes a healthy dose of skepticism is a good thing. When trying to challenge the status quo and change things, the best leaders are able to identify the skeptics and provide them with all of the facts and details they need to understand and feel comfortable. We live in an era of big data, use it.
Hold firm and show commitment
The skeptics will challenge you and wear you down; that’s what they do and they do it many times to see how committed you really are. When you truly believe in a challenge to the status quo you need to hold firm and tirelessly and show your commitment because everyone is watching (not just the skeptics).
Sometimes people need to move on and you have to exit them from the organization. Challenging the status quo suggests changes in functions, jobs and roles and not everyone who is performing a job today will be able to evolve to the jobs of tomorrow. It might serve all parties well to exit the people who don’t fit and find the people who get it and understand the challenge to the orthodoxies.