- Thomas Thurston
Change – a two way street
Earlier this month innovation leaders from many of the world’s largest companies gathered quietly in Portland, Oregon to explore predictive model frameworks for their biggest strategic decisions. The event was dubbed “Innovators Anonymous” because, unlike other events of this caliber, the participants weren’t allowed to reveal their true names or identities (until the very end) to maximize the collegial, hierarchy-free exchange of ideas. While a great deal transpired at this secretive event, two things struck me that I’d like to share, as the event’s host, if only to better understand them myself.
The biggest challenge is getting buy-in and influencing others. I should have known this. In fact, I did know this. We all know this. Yet sometimes you hear something new in an old song. As someone who builds predictive models for a living, I spend a lot of time and energy looking for the “answer.” What are the most predictive variables? What’s the right way to combine them? What’s the effect on accuracy when you tweak one thing or another? If you ask me at random I’ll reflexively tell you that’s the “hard part.” The science. Actually being able to predict the future.
Yes, that’s the hard part. True enough. Well… kind of. As hard as finding answers may be, it wasn’t what most people at Innovators Anonymous ended up spending the majority of time wrestling with, debating and agonizing over. Instead, the most persistent issue was – once you know the answer, then what? Once you know the right thing to do, how can you get buy-in and influence others to do it? Even the most powerful predictive tools need management buy-in, which is ironic because this problem shouldn’t exist.
In a logical world, once an answer is found everyone should accept it. The existence of water is a good example. It doesn’t matter what anyone’s opinion is; water exists. No point being a water-denier. When presented with sound evidence we’d all like to think rational people join hands and do the right thing. Silly us.
Of course reality is rarely so tidy. One of the most tortured examples is 19th Century physician Ignaz Semmelweis who spent a career trying to get doctors to wash their hands to prevent medical infections (to no avail). Despite lives at stake and mountains of evidence, he couldn’t get anyone to change. The poor guy ended up with severe depression, alcoholism and went insane trying to get buy-in on something even young children now see as intuitively obvious. As if that wasn’t harsh enough, he died in an asylum, ironically, of septicemia the very year Louis Pasteur made breakthroughs in microbe research that became the roots of modern germ theory. Stories like this are everywhere.
How can you get buy-in and influence others, even if you have a factually better way? Turns out, unless you can answer this question none of the other questions get a chance to matter. The event helped me hear this old tune in a compelling new way.
People want you to succeed. This was my second surprise. During a break, a colleague asked why I thought she was at the event. Sure, she was involved with the subject matter in her corporate role. That’s why I’d assumed she was there. But then she told me another reason – she wanted me to succeed. It took me by surprise and then, looking around, I realized a number of people had taken the time to step forward and lend me their support. Sure, there were lots of reasons people were at the event – some having more to do with me than others. Yet it simply never occurred to me that my success could have any bearing on someone’s decision to fly a few thousand miles in the middle of a work-week for a two day event in Portland. Yes I was flattered, but that doesn’t describe how I felt.
I felt mostly… ashamed. Ashamed that I’d been so caught up in the event, its substance, the agenda and the value we felt we were delivering that I’d failed to appreciate people’s generosity, good intentions and support. I thought I was doing something for them. Turns out, they were doing something for me – and I nearly missed it.
So there you have it. Change is a two way street. While there were a lot of other exciting details and revelations at Innovators Anonymous, for some reason these two had the strongest impact on me:
(1) Better answers can only get you so far – being “right” is necessary but insufficient. Never underestimate the importance of buy-in in your quest to create meaningful change. None of us can do it alone.
(2) Even if you can’t convince everyone of everything, all the time, as fast as you’d like to, don’t lose sight of those on your side. My biggest lesson wasn’t in the meeting agenda and as a consequence I nearly missed it. Don’t overlook the good people who want to help you succeed. Notice them, appreciate them and do your best to be worthy of their support. At the end of the day, that’s what changed me most.