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Building Coalitions and Developing Personal Credibility

The art of getting things done is all about building coalitions, and the art of building coalitions is all about developing personal credibility and identifying the people you will try to get support from. You might be thinking, “hey I’ve accomplished all these difficult tasks! I’m home free, which way to Easy Street?”  Not so fast.

Now you have to justify to your potential allies the need to take action.  You have to persuade them that there is a need for action.  To do this, you are going to have to prove the timeliness of your ideas.  This is going to be a question of carefully selecting the best scenario to convince your  targets for initial support that the time has come to act. 

In trying to enlist people to join you in your effort, you should consider the four scenarios that you can use in making your case.

Rational Scenario: “Look at the numbers”

 By using a rational scenario, you present a logical justification for change.  Implicit in this argument for action is the assumption that you’ve arrived at the decision to take action through careful analysis, detailed cost and benefit projections, and a well-structured presentation of alternatives. You look at the numbers as they relate to money, time, and resources. Some might refer to you as “up-tight”. You prefer “thorough”.

A rational scenario is calculated. You have to quantify both the costs and the benefits, and then subtract costs from benefits. If the benefits outweigh the costs then you have a good reason for taking action. A rational scenario emphasizes the payoff to the organization, whether it takes the form of additional profits, a lower cost structure, or superior market position. You propose voluntary action based on sound data and logical projection. It is a great way to take raw emotion out of the equation but it also has its drawbacks. There may be a strong contingent of people within your corporation who disagree with the rational scenario. They will challenge your assumptions, no matter the strength or accuracy of your calculations.

Remember the problem of not having the “perfect answer.” There is usually not enough information, resources, or time to gather every last bit of data or conduct all of the analysis necessary to solidify an argument. In most cases, there are actually unquantifiable or subjective costs. Lastly, there’s sometimes a difference between the magnitude of the numbers and the meaning of the numbers. Certain costs may not be significant in dollar terms but are strategically important.

You may be most successful in using a rational scenario—“Look at the numbers”— to call for action in an organization with a strong planning culture or firms where rigorous quantitative analysis is required before any decision is made. It may work less well for you in mission-driven organizations—where qualitative factors often play as important a role as numbers. The rational scenario may falter in highly changeable situations where projections of future costs and benefits are difficult to quantify with any degree of accuracy—such as any initiative that relies on a forecast of the company’s stock price. In highly volatile times, a rational scenario is much less persuasive.

Mimicking Scenario: “Everyone’s doing it”

Where the rational scenario uses hard facts and logic, the mimicking scenario relies on visibility to reduce the perceived risk of the change initiative and to improve its legitimacy—“This has been done in other organizations, so we must do it, too.”  The “everyone’s doing it” argument may seem simplistic, but it is often quite a sensible response, especially in those instances when you find yourself in a situation where you don’t have the time or resources to experiment with an array of alternatives.  Why not hitch your wagon to what appears to be a successful best practice? Would you jump off a bridge if your best friend told you to? You might if your friend had double digit growth over the last 3 quarters.

Sometimes, mimickers will identify processes of key competitors that need to be replicated. Other times, mimickers will choose other organizations that have achieved “best-in-class” status for certain processes. Think about how many service organizations have copied Disney’s customer service processes and training as the gold standard for their own dissimilar industries.

The downside of mimicking is that in the context of uncertainty, it’s not clear what goals, products, technologies, structures, and processes are most appropriate.

As a result, many organizations often end up adopting a change by simply copying it, without any concept of its appropriateness or effectiveness. This goes a long way to explain organizational fads and fashions (e.g., re-engineering, zero-based budgeting, job enrichment, etc.)

The mimicking scenario is an easy target for critics. Some will call the initiative unimaginative. Others may thwart a mimicking scenario by examining the mimicked company’s stock performance. For example, how many organizations pointed to Enron as a bestpractice company for processes from innovation to business reinvention? Or, others who pointed to Xerox’s R&D activity as a best-in-class process. Despite the fact that Xerox may, indeed, have a world-class R&D activity, critics may point to the beating the company’s stock has taken over the last few years and ask, “Why would anyone want to mirror that performance?”

The mimicking scenario—“everyone’s doing it”— may work best for you in larger organizations and in planning-oriented environments. Larger organizations are more likely to feel an affiliation with other large, best-practice companies. Smaller firms rarely compare themselves to large organizations and value originality more. If you are a Traditionalist or a Developer, you may prefer to use mimicking as a justification for adopting a change strategy, as this justification has a visible end-point as a target—making it plannable.

Regulation Scenario: “They made us do it.”

Laws or regulatory changes occasionally require an organization to change its processes and/or the way it operates. Consider how units within a telecommunications provider needed to change when the federal government lifted restrictions on providing local and long-distance service. There are plenty of organizations that use regulation as a reason for change.

With a regulation scenario, there is a strong third-party mandate for change. It is not difficult for you to obtain information about rules and regulations particular to an industry to determine whether the regulations actually require changing operations. Though not always quantifiable, regulations are nearly always accompanied by a body of written documentation that can be easily accessed and cited when necessary.

Regulations are not always clear—and are subject to interpretation. Regulation-driven change frequently is tied to a time frame for compliance. People may say, “We don’t have to comply with that for another four years,” as a way of delaying the change effort.

You may find that using the regulation scenario—“They made us do it”—may often have limits.  Acquiescence to regulation and pressure does not mean that the organization becomes more effective. Rather, submitting to regulation may bring the organization into compliance with external governmental pressures, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that compliance serves the most efficient end of the organization. Many industries may see regulatory changes once every decade, while changes in their business take place annually or every couple of years.

Standards/Expectations Scenario: “People expect it of us”

Sometimes you may want to justify the need to take action on the basis of normative expectation.  What would the community expect of us as an organization?  What would the customers expect of us?  What would our colleagues expect of us?  When justifying action on the basis of the standard/expectations scenario, you are purporting to act in concert with the expectations of the greater community.  While you may recognize that in the short term, this may not be beneficial to the bottom line, you believe that taking action that meets community expectation will have long-term benefits, such as customer loyalty, community trust, etc.

Regulation provides an explicit measure to justify change, while standards or external expectations provide implicit reasons for change. When you use the standards/expectations scenario as a reason for legitimizing your efforts, you are not proposing that the organization has to do something, as much as you are suggesting that if the organization doesn’t do something, the organization will be at a disadvantage. Or, that if the organization does act, good things are likely to happen as a result.

This becomes most obvious in the public sector, when government factions are perpetually trying to justify taking action as a means of addressing the needs of others. In the public sector, officials are seeking the high ground of moral justification, maintaining that their actions are predicated on the very expectations of the public. For example, for a government to eliminate poverty or provide security allows the initiator of the action to say, “I am doing this because it is expected.”

Taking Stock

Mobilizing a coalition is all about your ability to gain legitimacy—within and beyond the organization.  People want to get behind an idea or a person who is going to win or, at the very least, is not going to look like a loser. It’s human nature, people love a winner. This early stage in coalition building is all about establishing your credibility and building the case that will move others to support your effort. Think of it as a foundation on which you are going to build your initiative.  Without a base of support, it is unlikely that you’ll ever develop a strong enough critical mass to push your initiative through.

Choosing the right strategy for gaining potential supporters involves one of three approaches.  You can try to utilize like minds, co-opt specific leaders, or incorporate groups.  To choose the right strategy, you’ll need to carefully consider the people you are seeking support from, their role or position in the organization, or the people they influence. Once you’ve gotten meetings with the people you need to get behind you, you need to make the right pitches.  Are those prospective supporters rational, data-driven people?  Or are they concerned with best practices?  You need to tailor each argument to address the concerns of your prospective supporter.  Your success—especially early on—will depend on choosing the appropriate scenario.

If you’ve done your homework right and executed it well, you should now have initial support or support your coalition and focus on getting the actual buy-in.