Is your most annoying opponent really the most dangerous one?

Is this a mosquito? (picture by cheetah100 on flickr)

I have started interviews for my innovation networks study, trying to understand how a new idea materializes and becomes real world change. I am looking at the whole political process you have to go through, building coalitions, spotting and dealing with opposition etc. And while every innovation story is different, I do see some common patterns emerge. One interesting person is the really annoying nay-sayer. Someone who sees their own glory threatened if you are successful, prefers a different solution to the problem, or just thinks that any kind of change is a pain.

The innovation pushers can spend a lot of time and energy being annoyed about them, complaining, building them up as the common enemy. But the interesting insight comes when setting up influence towers and considering: How strongly can this person actually influence that we implement our innovation? And I am surprised to see that some of these people who get a lot of attention end up being of rather marginal importance to the whole project success. Maybe they are like the mosquito in the room, that won’t kill you but can really really distract you.

Now the challenge is: How do you figure out early on whether the person who tries to stop you is a mosquito or a lion? And how can you develop the discipline to react appropriately, focus a lot of attention on potential lions and ignore the mosquitos? This is one of the few monents when you will hear me say: Don’t just blindly follow your gut feeling. Because we all react to certain triggers and the fact that someone is unpleasant, inappropriately competitive or you just can’t stand them, says little about whether or not they actually would have the power to stop you or not. There seem to be two steps to the assessment: Your gut feeling will (most often) tell you who to watch. Then take a step back and ask yourself: In the worst case scenario, what could this person do to stop us? Do they have formal veto power? Do they have access to someone who does? What other strategies could they succesfully employ?

Once you know whether this opposition is crucial to the success of your innovation, you can start thinking about strategies. If your opponent could have a potentially detrimental impact, you should do something and there are basically two directions you can take: Embrace or fight (well, the third option is ignore – but then you are giving the other person control over the situation).

Embrace: Understand the underlying motivations and see if you can find an overlap. Can you do something about their fear (of change), need for recognition, feeling of exclusion? Can you adapt the content of your innovation to integrate some of their ideas or can you change the public appearance to give credit to them in one way of the other? Can you strike a deal: I support yours and you support mine? Do you have a strategy to ease the disruption that change will bring to their work? Often these strategies are enough to defuse the bomb and they tend to cost much less energy and create less damage than a confrontative approach.

If they don’t work for the other person or for you, be strategic in the fight you are looking at: Who in the network is influential and on your side already? Any powerful people who are still sitting on the fence? Who are the people both you and the naysayer are connected to? Can you pull them toward your position? What are the missing links and actors in your innovation network?

Now while I encourage you not to spend too much energy on the mosquitos, not to obsess about them, I will say: Keep an eye on them. Check every once and again to make sure they didn’t become more influential without your knowledge.

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