Shaking the pillers of heaven

Stephen Walt has a piece up with recommendations on how to handle attacks when you upset the apply cart by challenging conventional wisdom and cherished assumptions.  Now, he’s writing from the position of discussions on the national level where opponents and arguments can come from a wide range of interest groups and the media but I think you could scale a number of these recommendations down to the local and/or organizational level as well.

I’ve thought about and written about this issue from a slightly different angle before when talking about how analysts and their role in forcing through organizational change.  Therefore here’s my riff on Walt’s recommendations from my own experiences and observations.

  1. Think Through Your “Media Strategy” before You Go Public. If you’re going to recommend changes that are outside the comfort zone of decision maker,different from what your organization has traditionally done you know from the get go that you’re going to encounter a lot of resistance, both individual and organizational.  Regardless of the merits (or lack of them) of the proposal, nobody likes the uncertainty of change.  So before you unleash your brilliant idea on the world, take a second to think about how you should market it.  Are you going to try to build a broad base of support or target a select number of key players?  Are you addressing an existing problem or trying to get your organization to expand into new territory (uncharted or someone else’s)?  Perhaps you want to sell your idea outside your organization as well as (maybe even before) you raise it in house.
  2. You Have Less Control Than You Think. If you have surrogates arguing your case they may not do so in the way you want.  They may not understand your proposal perfectly or may be using it to further their own aims and so only push certain aspects of it or characterize it.  In any case you may find yourself wrapped up in a controversy over a periphery issue or battling misunderstandings rather than discussing what you see as the important aspects of your idea.  Other people are going to want to change the narrative.
  3. Never Get Mad. It’s your idea and you have a personal attachment to it.  It’s your baby.  And when someone tells you that your baby is ugly you want to teach that fool some manners.  Resist getting personal and emotionally driven.  While you might be able to pull a tactical win out of it (I showed that jerk!) there’s just no way you’ll do well strategically.
  4. Don’t Respond to Every Single Attack. My biggest flaw. Sometimes you (meaning I) want to respond to every goofy objection/attack with a carpet bombing approach, overwhelming them with an avalanche of facts and references in the hope that they’ll give up.  You spend so much time rebutting that you hand over the initiative to your opponents and they start driving the message train.
  5. Explain to Your Audience What Is Going On. I just had an experience with this yesterday.  Many times people don’t see the context in which arguments are made and so afford them more weight than they deserve.  So, no, plan X isn’t technically impossible it’s just that it might mean that there wouldn’t be a need for a supervisor position that Mr. Y has been gunning for and that’s why he’s opposed.
  6. The More Compelling Your Arguments Are, The Nastier the Attacks Will Be. This is a tough one because it can also serve to justify wrapping yourself in a cocoon of delusion.  The more your idea makes a compelling argument for change the more the forces which benefit from the status quo will try to undermine it.  You might have the best idea in the world but if you’re nowhere near actually getting your ideas accepted you won’t rise about the level of an annoying buzzing in someone’s ear.  Of course, you could just be a kook in which case…
  7. You Need Allies. So that they’ll tell you if you’re a kook.  But, also because you simply won’t be able to be everywhere all the time.  You need proxies to fight for you.  You need people who are respected to vouch for you and give your idea some additional heft.  You need information about what’s going on.
  8. Be Willing to Admit When You’re Wrong, But Don’t Adopt a Defensive Crouch. Many times admitting that you’ve done anything wrong is spun as everything you’ve done is wrong.  If your idea is good it shouldn’t rely on too many choke points that can call the entire proposal into question.  In fact, the stability of an idea in the face of the occasional error should be held up as a strength (‘Yes, but even though ABC is no longer correct, XYZ is still inevitable because of all these factors.’)
  9. Challenging Orthodoxy Is a Form of “Asymmetric Conflict”: You Win By “Not Losing.Patience, grasshopper.  You may lose the battle but if you follow the above (or most of them) you can still win the fight.  This isn’t a kamakazi mission where you win or die (or win and die).  If you lose your battle but managed to get your idea out there and accomplished a few of these other points you can be seen as a resistance leader and begin building your own center of gravity.  When opportunities present themselves next time, you’ll be even better prepared.
  10. Don’t Forget to Feel Good about Yourself and the Enterprise in Which You Are Engaged. If you’ve gotten this far it’s probably because you’re working for something that you enjoy or have some emotionally connection to.  This shouldn’t be a cross you have to bear.  Find ways to stay connected to the parts of this endeavor that you enjoy (may I suggest…)

Of all of these, #9 has become the one that’s dearest to my heart.  I would have been skeptical of that advice a few years ago but I’ve seen it in action and now I’m totally sold.

I’ve often (probably too often) recommended that analysts frustrated by antiquated methods and stifling bureaucratic rules should consider conducting an analysis and intelligence op against their own agency.  In addition to a good examination of the operating environment and threat analysis I’d recommend keeping these close at hand as well.


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