Focusing on Your Opponents to Build Consent (an Example)
In winding up the August 14th Brownbag session, Hans promised to post an additional illustrative example on this blog.
The points this example is illustrates:
- Consent-Building has you focus your outreach efforts, your communications efforts, on your fiercest opponents.
- Focusing on your fiercest opponents is counter-intuitive . . . which means that your brain will come up with a dozen excuses why – this time – it’s not necessary, . . . or not useful, . . . surely a waste of time.
- Being committed to Consent-Building means you focus on your fiercest opponents in spite of all that.
We can illustrate these points without using the names of the parties involved (even though in the Brownbag session, Hans did mention the agency).
Journalist and Ever-the-Critic Mr. Z
The Director of Sport Fisheries in one a mid-west state Wildlife Department was routinely criticized by the columnist – the Fishing-Issues Columnist – of the state’s largest newspaper. Let’s call him “Mr. Z.”
No matter what the agency did in managing sport fishing, Mr. Z always knew better. In Mr. Z’s eyes, the agency – which really meant the director of Sport Fisheries – could do nothing right.
Because Mr. Z’s column ran not only in the state’s biggest newspaper, but was also picked up by newspapers throughout the state. This self-appointed critic had – in sense – a giant bullhorn, which he used to make his living criticizing the state’s professional fish biologists and their work.
The Director of Sport Fisheries had long ago learned that it was futile to try to reason with Mr.Z. He wasn’t interested in the biological realities; he preferred to sling mud, make accusations, and deal in innuendos.
When Disaster Struck
A time came when all it did was rain. It rained, and rained, and the rain just kept raining.
Rivers and streams flooded. One of the brown, swollen streams flooded the department’s fish hatchery where millions of tiny trout were being raised in preparation for release into all of the state’s trout streams a few months later.
This was a disaster; the hatchery was the only trout hatchery. If these fingerlings did not survive, there would be no trout season that year.
Could the fingerlings – even with the addition of the medication the agency added to the water — survive in the brown floodwater that had overwhelmed the hatchery? The headwaters of the streams where they were to be released later were less polluted, but the fingerlings were not ready to fend for themselves yet; they were still too dependent on the hatchery feeding.
The Director of Sport Fisheries – and his staff – needed to make some decisions.
The options, as they saw them, were:
- Keep adding medication to the polluted fish tanks holding the fingerlings; hoping they’ll recover from the shock and survive until their optimum release time later in the spring. (There was, of course, the distinct possibility that they’d all die before they were old enough to be released.)
- Take the fingerlings out of the polluted hatchery now and, — in spite of their immaturity – distribute them all over the state to the many headwaters. (With this option too, there was the distinct possibility that they’d all die after being released.)
Even Experts Disagree
As is often the case, not even the experts – i.e. the fisheries biologists within the department – agreed on which of the two options was the better.
And, the external stakeholders – including the trout fishermen, the sporting goods stores and other businesses who depended on a good trout season, etc. were bound to be of many different opinions.
Of course, all the opinionated pundits in the various sport fishing media – including the perennial Mr. Z with the biggest of all bullhorns in the state – were going to second-guess the agency no matter what it did. They all were bound to have known better than the head bureaucrat.
What an Implementation Genius Would Do?
OK . . . Remember the Agreement / Disagreement Scale we discussed in the Brownbag session (the diagram on slide #11)? Well, the Director of Sports Fisheries clearly saw Mr. Z as being pretty much on the bottom of that Agreement / Disagreement scale.
If the state was going to wind up without a trout season – Mr. Z was going to have a hay-day trumpeting how this was just another example of the agency staff’s incompetence.
The Director of Sport Fisheries had our SDIC training. He understood the need for focusing on the bottom of the Agreement / Disagreement scale.
On the other hand, he also knew – from experience – that Mr. Z was pretty much a lost cause. So, should he make an effort to reach out to Mr. Z? What was his communications strategy going to be – no matter which of the two options he chose for dealing with the flooded fingerlings?
Well, he put his Consent-Building training to work and reached out to Mr. Z.
He called Mr. Z on the phone. It was pretty much a one-way conversation in which he told Mr. Z something along the following lines:
“Here’s what’s happening: the hatchery has been flooded, and the fingerlings are in serious trouble.
I see two options for dealing with this disaster, but the fingerlings are in trouble no matter what I do. There’s a good chance there will be no trout season this year.”
He went on to explain “There are two options that I think we as an agency have, both of which are risky…
- We can try to medicate the fingerlings and get them to survive until their optimum release time.
- Or, we can release them now, and hope they’ll make it even though they have had a shock and are way too young to be released under normal circumstances.”
The Director of Sport Fisheries went on to explain his decision and the rationale…
“I’m going to implement Option #2 even though – if there is not trout season – it will clearly have been my fault for rushing them out into the field prematurely.
- I’m telling you all this because I know from experience that you’re going to criticize my decision in all of the state’s newspapers.
- I don’t expect you to support my decision. I fully expect that you’ll do your level best to make me and colleagues look like a bunch of idiots – as you always do.
- But, I’m calling you to tell you my reasoning so at least you’ll have the facts right and will have had a chance to understand my reasoning even though you’re bound to find your usual ways of distorting it. But, having at least the basic facts, maybe you’ll do less of a distortion job on us than you usually do.”
How Opponents Respond
As you can surmise, this wasn’t the most friendly conversation. The Director meant what he said; he was convinced Mr. Z would do one of his usual distortion jobs on him. Nonetheless, if Mr. Z had at least the basic facts right, he might do a little less distorting of the the truth.
This was a pretty humble objective: of trying to make a critic do a little less of a hatchet job with the truth!
Well, that’s not what happened. Instead of a milder hatchet job on the facts, Mr. Z wrote a very good — and more importantly FAIR — column! He wrote about the director’s agony of trying which of the two terribly options was better – actually – “less bad.”
In fact, Mr. Z did a very good job of explaining the pros and cons of both options, the courage and dedication to mission that was required to make the decision that he did in the face of critics in the media like himself.
Overcoming the Reflex to Avoid Opponents and Conflict
Not only did that rather desperate (and most likely futile) phone call to Mr. Z move him way up on the Agreement / Disagreement Scale, the Director of Sport Fisheries felt that it caused a significant change in his relationship with that particular stakeholder.
Even when an opponent seems unlikely to change their unfair and biased view of your work, don’t give in to the temptation to avoid that person.
Instead, follow in the footsteps of Implementation Geniuses and see what happens. You too might be pleasantly surprised!