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Book review: Steering your ideas through gauntlets of objections

Want to get buy–in? Make sure you have rebuttals ready for every attack.

The folks at Centerville Computers no doubt thought they were doing something good for their community when they approached the town library with an offer to help replace its out-of-date computers. For every six Centerville families that bought new machines from the store, its owners would donate a brand new workstation to the library. There was no catch, no devil lurking in the details. The deal only required the approval of the library’s Citizens Advisory Committee.

A funny thing happened at the committee meeting, however. Though the proposal was a simple one, and though it offered a clever solution to the problem of a tight library budget, one person after another stood up and voiced concerns. Some of the objections were illogical; some were unfair; and some were downright sneaky and misleading. Regardless, they were enough to derail a potential win-win for a small business and a town.

The failure of the Centerville computer plan, as laid out in a new book by John Kotter and Lorne Whitehead, serves to remind us that no idea, no matter how good, is bulletproof. Buy-In: Saving Your Good Idea from Getting Shot Down (Harvard Business Review Press) offers exactly what its title suggests: not a guide to creating good ideas, but to defending and building support for them so that they can be implemented successfully.

Best known for leadership books like The Heart of Change and Our Iceberg Is Melting, Harvard prof Kotter is a guru whose reputation is equalled by few contemporaries. Whitehead, meanwhile, holds a chair in physics and astronomy at the University of British Columbia as well as working in the school’s Education Innovation department. “In some ways, it’s a shame we even need a book like this,” they write. But we do, because implementation of good ideas is “a central part of what life is all about,” they observe, and “genuinely good ideas are damaged or killed all the time.” You’ve no doubt suffered a few bereavements of your own — and whether you realize it or not, you may have helped kill some smart ideas as well.

The Centerville Library’s computer dilemma is a second-person allegory that carries the book’s first half. You are placed in the shoes of an advisory committee member whose initial attempt to sell your fellow residents on the plan proves a spectacular failure. Kotter and Whitehead then wind back the clock and introduce an ally: your brother-in-law, Hank. He prepares you for the kinds of objections you’re likely to hear. At the meeting the next day, when various local characters raise objections, their complaints ring familiar.

With Hank’s guidance, you see four patterns emerge in their attacks. Some simply confuse, “sink[ing] a good idea by so muddling a conversation in people’s minds, they begin to wonder if your proposal really makes sense.” Others fear-monger or threaten to cause death by delay. The fourth category — attacks that take the form of ridicule or character assassination — “go after the person defending the idea, not the idea itself.”

It’s hard to stay composed when an idea you believe in is under siege, but, as Hank advises, it’s essential to keep your responses to critics short and simple. Meanwhile, having “a constant eye on the audience whose support you need keeps you from making the dangerous mistake of focusing only on the aggravating disruptors.” Spending too much time trying to counter the naysayers can be just as damaging as failing to counter their criticisms at all. Instead of trying to drown their complaints in supporting data and precedent, or listing reasons why they’re wrong, respond succinctly and move on.

Of course, any idea will be a non-starter unless you prepare properly to present it, and help is on offer in the book’s second half. Grouped within the four general attack categories, Kotter and Whitehead identify 24 specific objections that get deployed again and again. We’ve all heard comments like “We’ve been successful, so why change?” or “Good idea, but this is not the right time.” Each sample demurral is accompanied by a suggested rebuttal, and many include anecdotes showing those rebuttals in action. In real life, you’ll hear variations on those objections, but the authors have created a good enough taxonomy to give readers the tools to address most unforeseen arguments on the fly.

Perhaps the most interesting piece of advice in Buy-In is one that seems counterintuitive. We tend to avoid confrontation and criticism — all the more when there’s something important at stake. Standing in front of the Centerville crowd with your idea, you might refrain from calling on those you know want to criticize when they raise their hands, hoping to limit the commentary to friends of the proposal. According to Kotter and Whitehead, you would be wrong to do so. Instead, they suggest you turn potential opposition to your advantage: conflict will get people’s attention, and that’s the first essential step to convincing a group to buy into an idea. “Without people’s attention, you really won’t have a chance to explain a hazard or an opportunity, along with your good, practical solution,” they write. “Distracted people will ignore you. They won’t listen carefully or long enough. They won’t listen with an open mind.”

Commanding attention is a precondition to winning minds, but that must be followed by winning hearts. To bring an idea to fruition, you need emotional buy-in, not just the kind you get by winning 51% of a vote. Conflict, handled well, can spur that emotional investment. Thus does a Centerville grade-school teacher remind the arguing crowd, at the height of the meeting’s tension: “Breaking out into a mild yelling match is nothing to worry about, because it’s just human nature. … It’s actually worse if there is no discussion, no objections, no emotion. That usually means people don’t care.” And surely that’s the worst fate for any good idea.

Executive summaries

Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America (Spiegel & Grau)
Matt Taibbi

Should they recognize it, the name Matt Taibbi will likely make most of this magazine’s readers snort on sight. And fair enough. Rolling Stone isn’t Fortune, and Taibbi, the music magazine’s latest heir to Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo mantle, has spent the past two years filing the mainstream media’s most vitriolic stories about Wall Street.

This is the writer who famously called Goldman Sachs “a great vampire squid, wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” If you are a banker, or by some other qualification a member of what Taibbi dubs here “the grifter class” for whom “government is a slavish lapdog that the financial companies … use as a tool for making money” — well, you and the author are not going to get along.

But be careful of dismissing him as a sideshow. He is a formidable reporter and a gifted writer, and this examination of America’s “bubble economy” offers substance among the cuss words, outlandish metaphors, and occasional conspiracy theories. If the Tea Party (eviscerated brilliantly here) is proof that real populist anger exists on the right, it’s there on the other side of the spectrum, too. And, for better or worse, it’s rarely expressed as well as it is here.

American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism 1865-1900 (Doubleday)
H. W. Brands

Twice Pulitzer-nominated, history professor Brands has elsewhere given book-length treatment to some of the threads he combines in this account of the 35 years that gave birth to the modern economic order. At this point, there may be little new scholarship to offer on figures as thoroughly studied as John D. Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan, but that doesn’t negate the value of a well-written survey of the world they wrought.

By the Civil War’s end, the United States had begun its shift from a disjointed agrarian society to an industrialized one knit together by corporate and financial organizations as much as by democratic ones. The accumulation of wealth in the hands of a very few, and the tension that created with the instruments of the state, drives Brands’s narrative. Such concentration of wealth meant the likes of Morgan were “afforded … more power than any elected official save the president, and sometimes even more than the president” — as when Grover Cleveland turned to Morgan to bail out the federal treasury. The attitude these giants took toward the law of the land, meanwhile, was typified by Cornelius Vanderbilt’s warning to some former partners: “Gentlemen: You have undertaken to cheat me. I won’t sue you, for the law takes too long. I will ruin you.” And he did just that.

Keep the Change: A Clueless Tipper’s Quest to Become the Guru of the Gratuity (Ecco)
Steve Dublanica

“The only income that’s more under-reported than tips is money earned from illegal activities,” writes Dublanica, a rare waiter who wasn’t merely claiming on his taxes to really be a writer. At an estimated $66 billion, tipping accounts for almost half a percent of American GDP, and a little more than 3% of the country’s workforce relies on it. A follow-up to Dublanica’s bestselling Waiter Rant, this book is a chatty journey through the ranks of the tip-dependent working class in a quest for a better understanding of who, when, how, and how much to tip.

Dublanica spends time with restaurant and hotel staff, bathroom attendants and taxi drivers, delivery men and strippers, examining what tipping means to their bottom lines. He’s shocked to discover that most shoeshine guys, for example, pocket only a dollar out of the price of the shine, relying on tips to make the job anything close to viable. In Las Vegas, a blackjack dealer breaks down the difference between good tippers — Georges — and bad tippers — fleas. It isn’t necessarily dollar values that separate the two; you can be a George on a budget. It’s more about showing appreciation for a service. Chances are, you could use the advice found herein. “Canadians are the worst tippers,” complains the dealer. “And they’re proud of it!”