Creating Coalitions

Anyone who has been observing the stimulus bill negotiations surely has become much more cognizant of President Obama’s need to build coalitions and the early lessons he is learning. To paraphrase his comments last evening, “old habits die hard.”

In order to exert influence without authority to require that people take certain actions, one needs to create coalitions to get things done. Influence networks – informal bonds among colleagues – can help you marshal backing for your ideas among colleagues. However, to do so, one needs to create an influence strategy. This means figuring out whom you must influence, pinpointing who is likely to support and resist your key initiatives, and persuading “swing voters.” .

Many new leaders make the mistake of focusing on the vertical dimension of influence, i.e., direct reports and supervisors, and not enough to the horizontal dimension, namely peers and external constituencies.  Think about who might be critical to your success and whether you have engaged and enrolled them.

Start by identifying the key interfaces between your group and others. Customers and suppliers, within the business and outside, are natural focal points for relationship building. Another strategy is to get your boss to connect you. Request a list of ten key people outside your group whom s/he thinks you should get to know. Then set up  meetings with them. (This strategy should be employed for your direct reports as well. Create priority relationship lists for them and help them to make contact.)

Another productive approach is to diagnose informal networks of influence. Observe the interactions at meetings including who defers to whom on crucial issues. Identify who is sought after for advice, who shares what information and news, and who is owed favors.

Identify the sources of power that give people influence such as expertise, access to information, status, control of resources (such as budgets and rewards), and personal loyalty. Talk to former employees and people who did business with the organization in the past. Seek out the natural historians.

Eventually, you will identify the opinion leaders. If these vital individuals align behind your A-item priorities, broader acceptance of your ideas is likely to follow.

There is a diagramming tool known as an influence map that will help you identify who influences whom. An influence map will help you identify supporters, opponents, and “convinceables,” people who can be persuaded.

Potential supporters typically share your vision of the future, are quietly working for change on a small scale, or are new to the company and have not yet become acculturated to its mode of operation. You must solidify and nurture this support. It is not a given.

Opponents will oppose you no matter what you do. They may believe that you are wrong. They may be comfortable with the status quo, have a fear of looking incompetent, see you as a threat to a value that they hold dear or to their power, or that your arrival will have negative consequences for people that they care about.

When you meet resistance, try to grasp the reason behind it. This will allow you to counter arguments and you may be able to convert some early opponents.

“Convinceables” are the swing voters who are either indifferent to change, undecided, or may be appealed to based on their interests. Take the time to try to figure out what their interests may be. Ask them or engage them in dialogue about the situation. Ask if there are competing forces that prevent these people from listening to you.

Now you are ready to think about persuasion strategies. People tend to weigh status quo vs. change. People will more likely gravitate to the status quo unless remaining with the status quo is perceived as a future threat or if there is a reward for change. If the leader has earned sufficient credibility, merely asking people to try something new is sufficient. These persuasive appeals can be based on logic and data or on values and the emotions that values elicit, or some combination of both.

There are action-forcing events that require change. Review meetings in which people must discuss progress publicly are one such event. These meetings encourage action and enforce accountability.

If people are unable to move at once, a leader may employ strategies to allow people to make incremental steps towards change called “entanglement strategies.” For example, getting people to participate in an initial meeting may cause them to participate later on. Entanglement works because each step creates a new psychological reference point for deciding whether to take the next small step.

Another way to do this is to get people to participate in data gathering. Once the person recognizes the problem, have them participate in refining the problem definition. From there it is a small step to solution planning and then, to implementation.

Finally, if you get people to change behaviors, right attitudes often follow. This is because people look for consistency between their behaviors and beliefs.

This all leads to a concept called “sequencing strategy.” By getting individual influencer’s alignment and support, group actions follow. If you approach the right people first, you can set in motion a virtuous cycle. Approach people in the following sequence:

  • Individuals with whom you have supportive relationships first
  • People whose interests are strongly compatible with yours
  • People who have the critical resources to make your agenda succeed
  • People with important connections who can recruit more supporters
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