“The Best Way To Kill An Idea Is To Take It To a Meeting”

What is it about meetings that seems to stifle innovation and change? Too often good ideas are killed off in meetings for personal reasons: when the idea poses risks to status, territorial boundaries or loss of personal power.  Sometimes, ideas are referred to a committee with the express purpose of letting them languish.  As a leader, understanding how resistance is likely to manifest itself is the first step in overcoming it.  Let’s begin with where resistance happens most: in meetings.

17 Killer Phrases
Here is a list of 17 “Killer Phrases” that we have heard in clients meetings that attacked ideas for doing things differently.  How many of them have you heard, or possibly used yourself, in meetings?

  1. We already tried once that before.  It didn’t work.
  2. We can’t afford it.
  3. We’re too busy.  Our people are overcommitted already.
  4. It’s not in the budget. Let’s wait until next year.
  5. We haven’t tried this before.  How do we know it will work?
  6. The trustees will never agree to this.
  7. We already have a program that will do this.
  8. The students won’t go for it.
  9. The faculty will object.
  10. We need more information.  Let’s form a committee to study the idea.
  11. This isn’t a priority now but the idea is nice. Other things are more urgent.
  12. We don’t have enough facilities to make that work.
  13. That’s not how we do things around here.
  14. Things aren’t so bad.  This idea isn’t really necessary.
  15. We already have a plan for doing that.  No need to reinvent the wheel.
  16. We can’t add the staff it would take in the current financial situation.
  17. This sounds risky.  What if we fail?

Let’s be clear, resistance isn’t always bad. It may improve a good idea that is poorly thought out.  It may also lead to a better idea than what is being presented. The problem is when resistance leads to no action at all. Regardless of motivation, resistance is a good indicator that the institution is not ready for change.  Your task is to move people to action by addressing the attitudes behind those killer phrases.

Lesson in Leading Change
Our clients are seeking transformational change for improving admissions, retention and graduation levels. It requires implementing systemic solutions that affects all levels and functions of the institution.  Getting full commitment from administrative, faculty and other campus leaders is the essential first step.

When we work with leadership teams, we share this list and ask team members for their reactions.  Universally, there are nods of acknowledgement and usually some nervous laughter as people recognize how they covertly or inadvertently behave to sabotage efforts to move from the status quo.

We have found that how we present the idea shapes how the conversation moves from a discussion of objections (“Why we can’t”) to possibilities (“How we can”).  We have learned that if the case for change is properly presented, the leadership team will create solutions to finding the time, resources and institutional commitment needed.

Three key steps to overcome resistance when presenting a new idea:

  1. Build your case for change on data. You will need facts that convince your audience that living with the current situation is not an acceptable option.  This can be framed as risk (what we can lose) or as opportunity (what we can gain) or a combination of the two.  Either way you need to create urgency.
  2. Build and support for your idea among key decision makers before presenting it. Seek information as to what they like or dislike as well as to uncover hidden reasons for killing it off.  Use your findings in the finalizing the presentation. Present the plan as an initiative that you endorse, while asking for leaders to help think through the best ways to improve its presentation and successful implementation.
  3. Present the idea in a plan format that translates features into benefits. Demonstrate the value of the change both to the individuals involved and for the institution as a whole.  When people see the intended end-results and how the institution and they will positively benefit, most resistance will melt away. For instance, improving retention rates by 1% in many institutions will add $1 million or more to operating revenue while helping to fill upper level classes and improving staff and student morale.

In other words, if you want to achieve your objective, do your homework prior to presenting it. Don’t expect that a committee, task force, or other group will deliver what you want just by pressure to do so.  Designing the idea (change initiative) as a plan, focusing on how it will benefit the campus when fully implemented, involving key formal and informal leaders in its development will create the institutional readiness necessary for its successful implementation.

Leading Change Check List
How you respond to the following questions will determine if your campus is ready to change:

  1. Have I made the case for change strongly enough?  Do people understand the need?
  2. Have I built support in advance among key players in the change effort?
  3. Have I made it clear that I am not asking for approval of the  idea, but I am seeking their involvement on how to improve and implement it?
  4. Have I solicited and listened to honest objections and then asked for creative solutions?
  5. Have I been clear about what I expect from the team members individually and collectively?
  6. Have I done what I need to do to free up time and resources to get this job done?
  7. Have I involved the team in finding solutions to the challenges of making the change happen?

Remember, people support what they help to create.  People seeing their ideas incorporated in the planning process, as well as in the plan, and seeing their objections at least considered in its development, will build support for its endorsement and create campus readiness for its successful implementation.

Photo Credit: Bill Branson