Your most loyal followers of the future just might be the skeptics who doubt you today. The story of disbelief turned into belief is one that happens all the time, in every discipline. Consider the path of great Nobel Laureate Max Planck who started off as a fervent skeptic, who didn’t even believe that atoms existed. But once he accepted atomic theory, he became such an ardent disciple of the field that he went on to found quantum physics and act as a mentor to Albert Einstein.
The people putting up the biggest fight against your innovation are actually the ones most poised to accept it later on. The problem is that we leave our doubters in a reactive position, where they judge what’s wrong with our idea without offering an alternative. That’s because they have no stake in our project. We need to bring our opponents inside the thinking process, make them co-creators of the very thing that they think they don’t believe.
Innovations scare people because they represent the unknown and the disruption of the status quo. It’s easy for your skeptics to dismiss your innovation: they say they don’t have the money or the time or that it’s not their responsibility–or that they like your idea and will wait to see how it pans out, hoping that nothing will come of it.
According to the law, silence is consent. But according to innovation, silence is dissent. When people get quiet or say nothing, they’re not agreeing. They are stalling your creative project.
There are very few things we can do with our skeptics. We can fight them, which rarely ends well. We can try to out-navigate them, which proves near-impossible given how cunning and clever they usually are. We can ignore them, which gets us nowhere.
Or we can try to understand our skeptics. This is best option–and the only way to really make our adversaries into allies. Remember that skeptics are not bad people. They simply believe that by opting out of our ideas, they’re protecting something sacred. The hope is that we can make our projects as important to them as the things they’re unwilling to lose.
So how do you move the skeptics from a reactive position to an interactive position? Here are three strategies for transforming your non-believers into believers who will help make your innovation initiative a reality.
Conversation. People often resist ideas because they can’t understand them. That’s why clear, direct, and personal communication is so important when it comes to recruiting supporters for your innovation. This is something much more than a PowerPoint presentation or a one-directional e-mail message. Engage in face-to-face conversations as you build a rapport with your skeptics. Spend time with your skeptics, get to know them–gain their trust.
Generation. There is one simple question that is sure to take any skeptic out of the reactive position: what would you do? Ask your skeptics how they would approach your challenge or problem and they’re likely to come up with things you’ve already said. The only difference is that when it comes from their mouths, in their words, they’re much more likely to accept it. Make sure to give them credit for ideas, even–especially–if they’re your own. Now they’ll feel involved in the same initiative that they once wanted no part of.
Compensation. With every innovation comes a substantial cost–a series of things we all need to give up. It’s likely that people won’t back your innovation because they stand to lose something by supporting it. Find out what your skeptics want. Do they want something financial? Something social, like status? Or maybe they’re concerned about security, which means you’ll have to de-risk the project. Know that we live in an inherently political world where everyone, to some extent, is self-interested. Sweeten the pot and make it worthwhile for your dissenters. What are you willing to give up to get your nonbelievers on board?
A new idea is relatively easy to come by, but a devoted supporter–that’s much harder to win. It takes a considerable amount of time and energy to bring skeptics around, but it’s an effort with a big payout. Once the skeptics stop doubting, they don’t just start believing–they begin to preach along with you. How will you engage and enlighten your skeptics so that they may illuminate other nonbelievers?