Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas,” said the computing pioneer Howard Aiken. “If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.” The truth is that any idea important enough to be valuable will be disruptive enough to inspire significant opposition to it ever gaining traction.
This phenomenon is often known as the Semmelweis Effect, after the Hungarian physician who pioneered hand washing in hospitals. Unfortunately, the medical establishment rejected his ideas and antiseptic procedures didn’t come into common use decades later. Millions of people died needlessly.
Yet as I’ve previously explained, much of the blame lays at Semmelweis’s door. Instead of taking into account valid criticisms of how he collected and communicated his data, he railed against the establishment, became a pariah and lost all credibility. The truth is that we need our critics, if for no other reason than that they have the power to save us from ourselves.
Exposing Flaws In Your Idea
One of the most effective programs for helping to bring discoveries out of the lab is I-Corps. First established by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to help recipients of SBIR grants identify business models for scientific discoveries, it has been such an extraordinary success that the US Congress has mandated its expansion across the federal government.
Based on Steve Blank’s lean startup methodology, the program aims to transform scientists into entrepreneurs. It begins with a presentation session, in which each team explains the nature of their discovery and its commercial potential. It’s exciting stuff, pathbreaking science with real potential to truly change the world.
Inevitably, during this initial session, they are asked, “how many customers have you talked to?” and, just as inevitably, their answer comes up woefully short. They are often yelled at and ordered to “get out of the building and talk to customers.” For many, it is a dressing down that they will never forget.
Ironically, much of the success of the I-Corps program is due to these early sessions. Once the entrepreneurs realize that they are on the wrong track, they embark on a crash course of customer discovery, interviewing dozens — and sometimes hundreds — of customers in search of a business model that actually has a chance of succeeding.
Make no mistake, every idea is flawed. As Steve Blank likes to say, “no business plan survives first contact with a customer.” So you want to expose as many flaws as you can before that happens.
Identifying Shared Values
In 1992, during the war in Bosnia, massive student protests broke out in Serbia. For 26 days, they demanded an end to the war and for the country’s authoritarian leader, Slobodan Milošević, to resign. Eventually, summer came, the students went home and little, if anything, was accomplished.
“These were very ‘Occupy’ type of protests,” Srdja Popović, one of the student leaders would later tell me,” where we occupied the five biggest universities and lived there in our little islands of common sense with intellectuals and rock bands while the rest of the country was more or less supportive of Milošević’s idea.”
Yet much like the I-Corps entrepreneurs, the activists learned from the experience. “We began to understand that staying in your little blurb of common sense was not going to save the country,” Popović remembers. In later years, the activists would learn to tailor their messages specifically to less educated rural Serbians who were turned off by the anti-war protests.
In much the same way, when developing a new product, it is often better to start with a minimum viable product rather than a full-featured prototype. You do this not so people can tell you how much they love your idea, but so they can tell you what they hate it and why. You have to get out of your own “little island” to find what people truly value.
They Can Send People Your Way
In the early hours of December 11, 2013, special police forces descended into the streets of Kyiv, Ukraine to violently assault peaceful activists protesting the Yanukovych regime. Known for their brutality, the units, called Berkut, cleared the streets and sent those gathered running to the shelter to the nearby St. Michaels Cathedral.
It proved to be a turning point, but not the one that Yanukovych expected. Mustafa Nayyem, who helped spark and then lead the protests, told me that the protests were losing steam and the brutal actions of the regime threw the support of the country their way. Yanukovych was forced out of office a few months later.
Often, your most fierce opponents can be your greatest asset. In his efforts to reform the Pentagon in the 1980s, Colonel John Boyd would start by doing low-key briefings to peers and then move on to congressional staffers. As his ideas gained steam, high-ranking generals would try to crush his efforts. Inevitably, they would overreach and he would gain even more support.
The key to leveraging your opposition is to not attack or even address them directly. Start by building the support of those who are already likely to be excited by the idea. As you gain traction, others will notice and join in. Eventually, your haters will feel they need to do something drastic and that will send even more people your way.
Whenever You Have A Big Idea, Someone’s Not Going To Like It
In researching my book, Cascades, I found that every successful transformational effort had a plan to overcome opposition. They didn’t dismiss their haters, but studied them, learned from them and were able to turn the disparagement to their own advantage. As the pressure increased, their opponents inevitably make a huge mistake that would turn the tide.
This is, of course, obvious in political and social movements, but I’ve found that it is just as important in corporate and organizational transformations. Make no mistake, if you want to drive anything more than incremental change, someone isn’t going to like it and they will work to undermine your efforts anyway they can. That is just a simple fact of life.
It is also something you can use to your advantage. Those who oppose your idea can point out flaws you may have missed. You can fix them. They help you expose underlying values that others may share as well. You can work to address them. As you build support, they are likely to lash out, creating an opening for you to win the day.
All too often, we end up preaching to the choir instead of venturing out of the church and mixing with the heathens. That’s how change efforts fail. So don’t ignore your haters. Embrace them. Learn from them. They can provide the key to driving transformation forward.
Greg Satell is an international keynote speaker, adviser and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, GregSatell.com and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto.