System Change

One of the greatest mistakes we all make when we are young is to believe that our great idea is either a) totally brand new and/or b) that everyone is as excited about it as we are. It’s not surprising because we spend our early years oftentimes being praised whether it be at home or in school. Alternatively, those not being praised, must expend enormous amounts of personal energy to get the inertia needed to leave an oppressed environment. But those that do, will likely believe the former fallacies as well because they’ve proven to themselves that even without help, they can compete at the top.

And then we move into adulthood – we go to college or get a job, we move away, we get hit, hard, with the realities. Not everyone is excited for you. Not everyone wants to hear what you have to say. Not everyone believes in you. Not everyone even wants you to win – especially if your success somehow diminishes theirs. The real world can be much tougher than we are led to believe as children, regardless of background.

So what are some key lessons I’ve learned working in one of the most entrenched systems we have in this nation: The federal government?

First, listen. I can’t foot stomp this enough. If you don’t know what people want, how in the world are you going to convince them that your idea is something of interest to them? In military, we say WIIFM: What’s in it for me? No one can answer this question without first listening to the very people to whom you want to send your message.

Two, make the pathway to yes/agreement easy, clear, and beneficial to them. It is easy in any system but especially in one where we feel passionate, such as helping our children or protecting our nation, to feel the compulsion to defend and explain why our ideas are the best ideas. It is easy to fall into the trap of excitement and share all the details. Rarely does anyone want to hear them all – not because they aren’t excited for you or supportive of your idea but they have ideas and tasking of their own. It is presumptive to assume or suggest that your work is more important than theirs. Rarely is it the case that this is what we mean but nonetheless, this is where we accidentally, but commonly, misstep being lost in our own enthusiasm. Stay focused on gaining buy-in through collaboration over explanation.

Three, name your target but don’t create a rigid pathway to get there. Be open to others’ ideas for how to achieve the same goal. You might find they add substantially to either the quality or completion of the goal.

Always remember, when people are part of creating the solutions, they become your champions – but when they are the recipient of your plan, they become your critics.


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