Friday, October 15, 2010

Getting Past the "But We Already Tried That" Response - my comment to a post by John Kotter on his Blog on (Harvard Business Review)

Getting Past the "But We Already Tried That" response is fantastic piece by John Kotter on the Harvard Business Review HR Blog this month and (this is how I commented directly to him on the blog on10.14.10) this is a great example of how execution can get bogged down.  

Another variation of this "block" is to say, "great idea lets study this issue in more depth and get Joe, Bill, and Mary's opinion. Then you can bring it back to us and we can discuss it again."  This delay strategy often has the same effect as an outright block and can be harder to counter because it is disguised as prudent and thoughtful.  

In either case, it can be effective to  immediately establish what YOU AND THIS GENTLEMAN BOTH AGREE ON.  Then, invest some time offline to resolve the issue. This reduces defensiveness, establishes common values, and protects what might be fragile egos.  

It might go something like this:  "Joe, thanks for your thoughts.  They are really helpful.  Do you agree that it made sense to at least explore this idea because of its potential to drive productivity?  Okay, so I would really appreciate the opportunity to meet with you after this meeting to discuss the issue further.  Are you open to investing some time?  Great, I know we both want to improve this business."  

Now if Joe doesn't agree with the basic need to vet this idea, try another more general outcome, like, " I know we both want to see this business improve."  There are times when a little diplomacy can go a long way.

You and your team have been wrestling with the problem of increasing efficiencies without a big budget to make it happen. You've been authorized to look at every aspect of the process. One particularly enterprising young woman on your team has found that a complicated safety inspection procedure that was put in place fifteen years ago is no longer necessary because the parts that required inspection no longer exist in the product now being produced. And yet workers are holding up the production for the required amount of time in order to get sign-offs anyway.  Great! Simple! We get rid of this inspection process for parts that don't exist and increase productivity by 15%!

Not so fast.
When you bring this insight to the management committee, one grizzled fellow says, "That won't work. We tried that five years ago and the lawyers wouldn't let us take it out of the subcontract." Now, this particular grizzled fellow is used to having his words taken as law. Everyone defers to him because he has been around a long time, is in a position of power, and knows a lot about the ins and outs of the critical and complicated production paths.

What do you do?

Certainly you could try to argue your point, but you don't have all the facts of what actually happened five years ago and past experience has shown that arguing with this fellow can be a dangerous activity.

The basic comeback for "We tried that already and it didn't work" is to say something like: "That's a good point, but that was then and this is today. You know, things change. They always do, for all companies everywhere. We don't make the exact same products. Our customers are changing" [or other basic, clear, facts that illustrate how things have changed]. "I'll make a call to the lawyers today, just to be safe" [if you haven't already done so, which you may have] "and if there's a problem with doing this now, we'll try to solve it and get right back to you. But we need the 15%, right? So unless the lawyers scream, why don't we agree now to go forward with the plan. I mean, it really is a terrific idea."

You must
never get sucked into the black hole of "what happened 5 years ago." He may have more facts than you do, and make you look as if you didn't do your homework. (Of course it's always a good idea, as part of your preparation, to learn about earlier similar efforts and why they didn't work out.) The real danger, though, is getting drawn into a distracting conversation that goes on to the point where the idea is put aside because you've run out of time on the agenda. Or that the ensuing discussion either bores or confuses people so that they give up and lose interest.

"We already tried that" is one of the familiar attacks I've seen many times over the years. Be prepared for it, and mold your response to your own particular situation. What are some of the variations on this attack that you have seen?

John Kotter

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