How to influence colleagues on strategy – and avoid the curse of Kodak

If people are convinced of an idea’s merit, they will champion it and help build on the strategy.

Better development of “influencers” within businesses can help ensure good ideas are adopted and key opportunities are not missed.

History tells us that the executives at Xerox and Kodak blew it.

Four decades ago, Xerox researchers invented the graphical user interface that became the cornerstone of the personal computer – but senior managers chose not invest in the technology. Apple and Microsoft are forever indebted to them.

Kodak invented digital cameras – but its managers stubbornly refused to abandon its focus on film. Nikon, Canon and all smartphone companies are the beneficiaries.

The truth is that a lot of wonderful ideas are overlooked within the senior ranks of corporations. Professor Joshua Klayman, a managerial psychologist at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, blames an absence of skilled “influencers” for this inability to get new concepts across the line.

With Xerox and Kodak, says Klayman, “the ideas were there, but the ability to influence the strategic direction of the organisation to take advantage of those ideas … was missing.”
Although companies routinely pour money into development for roles in areas such as finance, human resources or IT, they often neglect educating employees in the science of influencing strategy with their peers. 

As Klayman says, “There’s a sense that you just need to be a smart person who is good with people.” He thinks we can do better.

5 X factors that aid the adoption of new ideas

In the 1960s, Ohio State University sociology professor Everett Rogers coined the term “early adopter” during his research into why innovations catch on and succeed. 

In Rogers’ findings, five factors emerged as the keys to the adoption or rejection of new ideas.

  • Relative advantage: how much better is an idea or product than the offerings of the existing market leader?
  • Compatibility: to what extent is the concept a logical extension of the status quo?
  • Complexity: how easily can people understand the new idea?
  • Trial-ability: how hard is it to implement?
  • Observability: how discernible are the results to those testing the idea?
Get all five ducks in a row, Rogers argued, and the chances are that the idea will be accepted.

Klayman, who ran CPA Australia’s Strategic Influencer program in Sydney and Melbourne in November 2016, believes that in too many cases employees progress through the ranks based on their technical skills, only to struggle in more senior roles because they lack the development to shape the strategic view of the business.

He builds on the research of Rogers and others, using his own model of alignment, consensus and clarity to guide leaders’ thinking about influence in a more evidence-based way.

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Alignment

Since subcultures within companies create differing beliefs and expectations about new ideas or products, innovators need to understand how these perspectives can be reconciled.

To influence organisational strategy, the first step is to understand the divergent views of stakeholders. 

What synergies exist between these different views, and what conflicts need to be resolved? Only after determining the answers to these questions can you deploy appropriate strategies to align groups and pursue your shared aim.

Consensus

The next phase is to persuade people to make the “right” choices, not simply by getting them to go along with an idea but rather getting them to embrace it wholeheartedly.

“It’s the difference between compliance and commitment,” says Klayman.

If people are convinced of an idea’s merit, they will champion it and help build on the strategy. Part of the counter-intuitive technique of successful influencers is to not force concepts or answers on people.

Instead, says Klayman, you should gradually give them the knowledge and data that help them think, after due consideration, that your way is best.

Klayman adds that influencers should not fear resistance to their ideas. Such friction can enhance outcomes because exposure to a range of views often leads to a fine-tuned – and superior – idea or strategy.

“So, think about [such resisters] more as resources rather than obstacles,” says Klayman.

Clarity

Helping people clearly understand their problems, opportunities and decisions can add genuine value to a business. In this sense, influencers can play a crucial role in defining the choices that a company faces and laying the foundations for a clear path to future success.

Gaining clarity and maximising the impact of good ideas are not solely the responsibilities of senior executives. Middle managers are often first to witness trends that can shape the best ideas. Yet a top-down culture within organisations can stifle their voices.

“The middle-management level is very important for implementation,” says Klayman.

As the Xerox and Kodak examples illustrate, the multiplier effect of not having insightful influencers in a business can be significant. Great new ideas or products can sit on the shelf or be taken up by others, profits can disappear and employees can lose out because their value to a company is underutilised.

For Klayman, such a lose-lose-lose scenario highlights the importance of using education to turn technically talented employees into skilled influencers.

“It’s not a traditional part of many professional and business educations,” he says, “but I think this is changing.”

These companies didn’t see it coming …

The following companies could have done with smart influencers to prevent their fall from grace.

Nokia

Once the biggest-selling mobile phone company in the world, the Finnish company put its head in the sand about the emergence of smartphones and is now a poor cousin to Apple and Samsung.

Firestone

The revered American tyre company had warnings about the impact that radial tyres would have on the market, but it resisted changes to production methods and, by the late 1970s, was in financial trouble.

Gateway

This company was one of the biggest sellers of PCs in the early 2000s, but a failure to embrace laptops saw it dramatically lose market share. It was eventually taken over by Acer.

Read next: 5 ways to reframe a problem and find an innovative solution


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