When you’re trying to put forth an initiative or change the status quo, your job is to sell the idea to others. In particular, you’ll need to work with those who will have substantial influence over whether the project gets initiated and whether the project will be sustained.
The status quo often has a level of inertia associated with it. The study of physics and engineering has a specific definition of inertia, but for our purposes, we’ll define a new form of inertia called organizational inertia. Organizational inertia is simply the resistance to change of the status quo. Energy must be applied before changes to the status quo can begin. Energy is also needed to overcome the resistive tendencies that slow or stop movement once movement has begun.
First, let’s be clear. In almost every case, people don’t engage in organizational inertia simply because they’re stubborn. There can be a number of reasons; most often, it’s perceived risk.
Stakeholders might see your initiative as a good thing, but if there are risks, people tend to defend doing nothing. If the manager doesn’t perceive that the initiative has a high enough benefit and low enough risk, you won’t get support.
If you’re the maintenance manager and you want to expend resources to establish and maintain higher levels of control and stability of the work management process, the operations manager might appreciate the concept — improve efficiency and uptime. On the other hand, the operations manager might have been burned by a lack of timely responses in the past. If the organization can’t be trusted to convert work requests into timely work orders, the operations manager will resist the maintenance manager’s initiative. Perhaps the money spent on improved maintenance management is seen as a competitor for one of the operations organization’s own initiatives.
Think about your own experiences. Perhaps you recently looked into a cell phone contract or buying a vehicle. Given the time you must spend researching, your understanding of the choices determines the best option. Often the choice is to stick with what you have because you don’t have the ambition to dig into the research.
When you get down to it, you chose products based on risk. What is the risk that the price, features and quality will achieve your expected level? What happens if the vehicle ends up being a lemon — a garage queen that constantly must be returned to the shop for service? In that case, there’s a double hit — the high cost of repairs and lost time dealing with repairs, as well as a hit to your reputation as a savvy consumer.
Let’s compare that to a new initiative at the plant. When you’re advocating a change in the status quo, you must assume some of the qualities of a salesman, but not the pushy salesman, who’s trying everything to get you to “buy today or the deal will not be available tomorrow.” By the way, it’s always available tomorrow.
You need to be the salesman that sells based on understanding a customer’s needs and concerns and addressing them. To do that, you need to be an active listener. Once you truly understand what your “customer” perceives as risks, you need to have honest, well-researched responses. Recommended responses include:
- Build a case for action by presenting successful previous initiatives. The more examples you have, the more confidence others will have in your ability to deliver on what you’re proposing.
- Use analogies to clarify your recommended approach and expected outcomes. You can establish a familiar mental image in the mind of the person you’re trying to win over.
- Provide expert opinions from consultants, journals and other sources. Case studies demonstrate how similar organizations with similar circumstances recognized the opportunity and took proactive steps to capitalize on them.
- Provide well-developed explanations on the facts, features and benefits of going forward. Documented facts and figures expressed in charts, graphs and statistics with assumptions and qualifying statements tell listeners that you’ve put a lot of thought into your preparations.
Above all, communicate often and check to see if stakeholders have changed their views, or if there’s a new problem that needs to be addressed. You don’t need to make everyone into cheerleaders, but you must move them from being resistant to being neutral or supportive. Leaders move their organizations ahead. Knowing how to do so is a tool in the leadership tool bag.
Tom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP, is president of Alidade MER. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and (321) 773-3356.