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Mind Your Memes

By Author: James P Grinnell
Total Articles: 1

1) That's not how we do things here. This viral meme is as old as time
and while we'd love to believe that in the post-bureaucratic organizational
world it has been relegated to history's trash heap, unfortunately it is still
alive and kicking. Sometimes the ways "things are done around here" are indeed
hardwired into policies, procedures, union contracts, etc. But more times than
not, when you see this meme it is being offered by someone who is attempting to
derail a change they don't agree with. Deflecting this meme is generally quite
easy. When someone offers it up, ask them to show you where in the company
policies, union agreement, etc. that this amorphous/elusive "thing" is found.
You'll be amazed by how fast this meme is dropped when it's held under the
microscope!

2) That will never work. This is a variant of the above and
is often offered hand-and-hand with the "that's not how we do things here" meme.
This meme is more challenging to deal with, because it deals with some
speculative future state. Whenever we deal with a future state, there is
obviously a significant degree of uncertainty. Individuals offering this meme
are trying to capitalize on this cloudiness and thereby tap into their
co-workers' risk aversion. Remember, when dealing with this meme, your goal is
not to change the mind of the person offering it (which is generally a waste of
time and effort), but rather you are trying to win over the critical mass of
folks on your team who are yet infected.

How do you inoculate against
this meme? In large measure, you mitigate this when you give people as much
information as possible. This information might take the form of the concrete
actions steps and anticipated contingencies involved in moving in this new
direction. It might also involve sharing some external examples of
companies/teams that have had success doing a similar thing. A second way to
immunize against this meme is to get your team together to collaboratively
address the potential negative issues. Then, you use the "foot in the door"
technique to assure the team that you are collaboratively exploring this new
direction, nothing more. Of course, you have to brace yourself for the
possibility that this strategy may result in a team no-go decision. However,
what you can guarantee is if the team decides to move forward, you'll have
incredible levels of buy-in. The last approach involves building enthusiasm
around a compelling vision of what the future might look like when your team
pulls this off. Two conditions must be present to make this work: 1) you need to
be a genuinely visionary and persuasive individual and 2) you need to have a
pretty significant level of buy-in to begin with so that your efforts are
targeted only to the folks sitting on the fence.

3) We've tried that
before and it didn't work. More of the above, but this time it has the apparent
authority of past failures to bolster the virility of the meme. When you run
into this meme, you will actually question whether the idea is good or not
yourself. In fact, this meme is quite often a game stopper. The trick to
overcoming this meme is to identify some reasonable people on your team and work
through the process with them. The approach here is to articulate to these folks
that you are very passionate about your change and you need help understanding
its lack of viability before giving up on it.

During the process your
goal is threefold. First, you should find out as much about the previous attempt
as possible. In particular, look for aspects of the past effort that are not
analogous with what you are attempting to do. Don't tip your hand during this
fact finding effort as this information will be far more powerful later if you
decide to move forward with the project. Second, you should enlist these folks
in identifying potential solutions to the problems (perceived or real) with your
proposal. Again, this will yield tremendous insights (especially in terms of
what the most common objections will be) that will help you later if you decide
to push on. Third, you should use this process as a genuine validity check on
your proposed change. Maybe, just maybe you ARE wrong and sincere
open-mindedness could save you a lot of downstream grief. Keep in mind that
throughout this process you must refrain for trying to sell your idea-- that
time will come later. And when it does, if you take advantage of the information
you accumulated you will artfully advocate that your proposed change is
different from what was tried in the past and here's why!

4) "They'll"
never go for that. Oh, this meme is beautiful insofar as there are so many
"they's" that can be offered up. Upper management won't approve it. Other
departments won't support it. Employees will never accept it. Customers won't
embrace it. Suppliers won't like it. Do any of these sound familiar? This meme
can have you running around in circles if you let it. The trick is to not let
it!

To guard against this meme, you need to first determine how
widespread it is. If only a few team members are infected, then you can probably
invest your efforts on everyone else and ignore those who offer it up. If you've
reached plague level, then your best antidote is to bring some "they's" into the
process. If "they" were indeed against the change, you may be able to co-opt or
assuage them through inclusion. You also might find out that "they" never had a
problem with it in the first place!

5) We don't have the resources to do
that. Of all the anti-change memes, this one is the hardest to treat. It may be
a reality that your organization suffers from a paucity of money, people,
technology, facilities, knowledge, what have you. This meme can also be a game
stopper, especially if you entertain it at the start of the change process. You
should make every effort to put this meme off until the end of the
process.

If people are interested in the change, but don't believe that
the resources are available, you can ask them to hold off on that discussion
until after you have collaboratively vetted out the goals, action steps and
potential positive outcomes of the change. Don't promise that you'll be a
"rainmaker" and make the resources magically materialize. You'll likely squander
your credibility and your change effort will be DOA. Instead, argue that the
team should focus on building as compelling of a case as possible and then
invest your efforts in building momentum and buy-in. In the end, the soundness
of your change agenda and the level of commitment from your team may persuade
the "powers that be" to "shake free" the needed resources. Regardless, what can
be said with great confidence is that if you build buy-in toward a hard to
achieve goal, you'll find all kinds of ways to leverage the resources you have.
(For more information on leveraging resources, see Hamel and Prahalad's article
Strategy as Stretch and Leverage.)

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