Do Mundane Things. Get Your Ideas Accepted by Working Behind Enemy Lines, and Don’t be a Martyr.

20130815-132854.jpgHaving new ideas, particularly big innovative ones, can be dangerous. Radical thinkers and mavericks have a very long history of being persecuted and sometimes being burnt at the stake.

Question: Do you really want to be a martyr for your organisational improvement idea? Wouldn’t it be better to achieve positive change by working quietly behind enemy lines?

There is a (wrongly attributed) quote from John Wesley, “set yourself on fire with enthusiasm and people will come from miles to watch you burn” This might over 200 years old, but you can still look at this from the perspective of modern day ideas, both positively and negatively:

  • Yes, people love my ideas, they are coming to learn and implement; or
  • They hate my ideas and are enjoying the spectacle of me getting toasted.

The point is, that getting an idea accepted can be a huge challenge, possibly as challenging as coming up with the idea in the first place. Obviously this will vary, depending upon who you need to sell the idea to. I’d suggest it is probably easier somewhere like Google or Ricoh in Telford, than in a huge government department. I did touch on this in a post about Idea Antibodies where I suggested a way of gaining acceptance for your innovative idea was to “pretend you’re not a maverick”.

Two of the things that happened following the post that are well worth sharing are:

Good Advice from Mark Braggins: This is good solid advice, I’ve changed nothing here….

“Sometimes it’s not the idea which is rejected, but the way it’s presented, particularly if the proponent appears to challenge the top leadership.

  • Deploy different tactics according to the nature of the idea, for example:
    if it could save money, approach the lead for that part of the business and talk to them directly, without challenging in public. If convinced, they might volunteer to take it forward.
  • If it’s an innovation idea, encourage an ‘innovation workshop’ and contribute to it. Open questioning may help others come up with a similar, or better idea.
  • If it’s the idea which is important, allow others to think it was their idea in the first place, and encourage them (a sort of constructive Lago figure?).
  • Empathise with the decision-makers, and use language they understand. Avoid technical jargon.
  • Ideas people also need sales, communications & marketing skills to spot the obstacles or blockers and adapt accordingly.
  • Timing can be very important. Pick the time when decision-makers are most likely to be receptive to ideas.
  • Persevere.
  • If all of that fails, but you feel it’s still a good idea, move or start a new business.”

Good points from Mark that I think just about everyone could agree with. One area where there is some debate, is around when is the right time to move on and leave the organisation? How long do you persevere before you leave or change and become one of the sheep?

Paul Taylor is fairly clear in this presentation that ‘if they don’t get it’, you do actually need to leave. However, what if the organisation you work for is the only one doing what it does, what if it is the National Heath Service? If you really need to stay and be part of the organisation to make the changes Helen Bevan gives some good advice on how to be a “Boat Rocker”; creating the change from within.

How to be Boat Rocker by Helen Bevan

This is a really thought provoking presentation from Helen, Calling All Change Agents. It is 67 slides long, packed with useful information and well worth viewing (several times). Here are three key messages I drew from it:

  1. Don’t be an outlier. This is taken from a Seth Goding quote” the best way to survive as an outlier is not to be one”, or just pretend not to be a maverick.
  2. Be Mundane. There are some thought provoking quotes from Debra Meyerson who wrote Tempered Radicals: “Instead of stridently pressing agendas, start a conversation…..yearn for rapid change, but trust in patience,……….their ends are sweeping, but their means are mundane”.
  3. Build Alliances. Helen’s advice on how to build alliances with people: tell a story, make it personal, be authentic, create a sense of “us” and build a call for urgent action.

These are just a few snippets. The full presentation is well worth spending time absorbing.

Finally, you might be wondering about the picture of Miss Marple? In my mind she is a good example of someone doing the mundane; quietly getting to the bottom of things, gathering the evidence, convincing skeptical people, getting people to accept what she has to say. I wonder what sort of ‘change agent’ she might have been?

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. Life as a radical ideas person can be very difficult. Depending on the circumstances you can get ‘burnt’.
  2. Leaving the organisation is always an option.
  3. If you want or need to stay and make change from within, think about being mundane, patient and doing small things. Work quietly behind the enemy lines.

Picture Source: Miss Marple (Joan Hickson)

Linked Posts:

The original Ideas Antibodies post.

View of some Big Beasts on the Ideas Antibodies post:

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

14 Responses

  1. I found this post very thought provoking. It got me thinking about Ideas people, who often, with the best of intentions, want to push forward ideas at a pace. This can and does enviably impact negatively on the community/staff members. I’m taking from this post the important to stop and consider what pace you need to work at to bring people with you. Thanks Chris

  2. Important post, with valuable resources attached.
    I agree with most of the sentiments here. To illustrate the ‘don’t be an outlier’ point I always think of a common situation in rugby. The player with the ball spots an opportunity, makes a superb break, gains 20+ metres before being tackled…and then loses the ball which gets hoofed back the 20 metres and another 40 on top. They’ve done nearly everything right: spotted the opportunity, skillfully taken action, made huge strides on their own, only to put the entire enterprise in jeopardy because they let themselves get isolated.
    Its always important to take someone with you (more than one if possible) not (just) because they can help you succeed, but so they can support you when you fail. Often when trying to push things forward we are so confident of the gains to be made, we are prone to forget the world can throw up surprises; things we haven’t anticipated. Its at those times that your detractors will attempt to restore the status quo, and you’ll need support to stand your ground, enough support and you can even roll your maul to the tryline!

    I’d like to say something also about the ‘Should I Stay or Should I go Now?’ question. I have repeatedly stated that, in my own case, changing jobs in the face of immovable objects is not my preferred option. I’d like to make it clear that this is my preference based on some possibly unorthodox views AND the real nature of the situation. I’m in an organistaion that recognises the value of innovation, but, as yet, hasn’t put in place all the necessary infrastructure in terms of cross-hierarchical/silo communication that it requires. I’m not pushing at a closed door, just an incredibly heavy one that requires more oil. Each individual has to make they’re own assessment of how much they may be able to achieve, and whether they would be better off in a less resistant organisation. Such decisions are highly context dependant.

    My (possily unorthodox) view comes in to parts.

    1. I think that it is rare indeed that any of us get the opportunity to do the job we love. I, for example, must reluctantly accept that I will never be a professional rugby player, and never play for Wales. However, I do believe that it is possible for all of us to learn to love the job we do. Engage with it, improve in it, become the best you can at it. You’ll never be short of challenges, and your successes will have more meaning.

    2. If you think like this then your motivation is strong to be playing for the best team, and there are three ways to do this. Keep changiing jobs and acquiring expereince plus credit until finally the current best team takes you on. Start your own team and build it from scratch. Work to make the team you’re in the best it can be, and so possibly the best there is (more relevant now than ever before to NHS Trusts now we’re getting League tables). I prefer the latter course, but consider them all legitimate choices. It is worth noting however that it takes time to build the support necessary for resilience, and the latter course will favour a slow steps ‘stick it up your jumper and make the hard yards’ approach – driving innovation isn’t always glamorous, and may even be mundane for long periods.

  3. Chris, again you have nailed in each corner the alternative more subtle and in many ways more effective approach that some of us utilise. From the perspective of a Union rep, quite often decision makers are able to say “well, you would say that wouldn’t you” so oftentimes when considering an idea that needs to breathe for a while before any decision is made I have noted that if the “obvious” benefits are proposed by the canvassed influential person in the room and the nuances are highlighted by the Union rep that makes the decision maker far more comfortable going with the influential persons idea knowing the Union rep approves, a sort of etiquette in reverse. It helps if there are regular changes in the structure and hierarchy as it looks fresh and new every time. Great post Chris… me thinking.

  4. Alicia

    Thank you so much for sharing this, it resonates so much and I found it very encouraging. I think it takes high levels of trust and personal integrity as well. I work in an environment which aims to enable innovative thinkers to thrive but the systems around us are not always working to support this. Being tenacious, calm, clear and confident comes when the path is clearer and people are ready to walk together along it, even if there are visible/hidden potholes! I work a lot with diverse groups of people striving to improve care who often speak different languages and taking time to create a common ground is essential for building that trust and getting the work done effectively. Sharing food helps too – we are fundamentally social animals after all!
    If you haven’t already seen this slide-share on rebels, its worth a look:

  5. Now to the busines … I had originally thought it best not to post this comment, a bit to impolite compared to the splendidness of the positive affirmations. Then I thought bugger it!

    What a sweetie little middle class type, dither of fearfulness! It’s typical of the subservience slipped gently into the soul of people who have been brought up under the cult indoctrination of leadership dogma. There is another way!

    I love Helen B and have seen her deliver that presentation, she’s fab. The message about “rock the boat but stay in it” is excellent. But you shouldn’t be too hesitant in blasting a couple of crappy old tubs, clean out out of the water with an innovation torpedo. I agree tactics, which are a million times more useful than strategies, are the key to getting your new idea out there, but tactics work best when they are devious!!

    As an example of the danger of fitting in, is the current zeitgeist flap over transparency as a panacea. It just isn’t! Sometimes you need to experiment, do something stupid, inject people about to die with their last hope. That requires a little cloud cover, for the innovators to squeeze the assumptions and attack the constraints and properly cock it up away from the Daily Mail readers. A person is intelligent, people are not and some things are best left sneaking around, under the radar.

    The Leadership mantra – about how one set of zeitgeist traits, can somehow inspire a complex system of interacting agents to change – is a medieval social control fantasy.  Dictatorships and cults can make a group of otherwise normal people, do some extraordinary things. Manipulation is powerful, and just because it’s dressed up in middle class language, by people who can’t do the jobs of the people they are ‘leading’, doesn’t make it any more ethical.

    Great things are never done by leaders or followers, they are done by people on the periphery of culture, far from the established acceptance. Innovators see the world in all its fleeting futures and then suddenly grab one of them. Innovation challenges the assumptions that keep particular zeitgeist people in powerful places. They then use that power to kill anything new that threatens the validity of the assumptions that gave them the power in the first place.

    Let’s not have a revolution (one type of trait based power replacing another) let’s make that stuff irrelevant. You don’t need acceptance to do great things, just the realisation that great things come from mutual relationships not munificent individuals or perfect plans.

    And before any indoctrinated lost souls, say that is leadership, Alan Fiske says there are only three relationships, in reverse-evolutionary order: Reciprocity (moral exchange); Mutuality (Kith and Kin); and Dominance (I rest my case).

    So as Helen says, “rock the boat” and would add “tip the boat over, turn it into a hovercraft and zoom off away from the floaters”.

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