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Stifling Initiative

10 simple rules for crushing innovation and maintaining a culture of inertia
University Business, Jul 2008

CHANGE IS NOT POPULAR. Heck, people hate change. It causes the status quo to become unsettled and the familiar starts to go away, replaced with uncertainty. Our comfort zone is demolished and we have to try to resettle into uncharted territory.

If we've learned a routine and it seems to work, there is absolutely no reason to have to do it differently. After all, the experts will agree that there is nothing new under the sun. So-called innovations are only the status quo in a rehashed, repackaged format that looks new. Honestly, who believes that just because a proposal will generate a slick exterior that the same functional beast doesn't lurk within?

Unfortunately, there are always those who just don't get it. You know-those who think organizations need to adapt to remain competitive, that change is good and results in greater efficiencies, that failure to adapt to "modernalities" is evil and counterproductive. Since they usually mean well and truly believe they are trying to improve our situation, we don't want to cull them from the herd (besides, who wants the hassle of trying to break in the newbie?). It usually suffices to discourage these people to the point that they fall in line and stop agitating. How do we get them to stop? How do we encourage the status quo without driving them to leave?

Losing the proposal provides breathing space to implement one of the more permanent tactics.

I call this unique program "Endiscouragement: The Fine Art of Encouraging No Change Without Being Perceived as a Naysayer." It has ten simple rules, which, if judiciously applied, will gradually lead the agents of change to conform to the culture of no that we are so carefully trying to preserve.

Don't forget to pontificate as much as possible when adopting any of these strategies, as properly communicated responses will serve to confuse the agent of change as to the exact meaning of your reply, further obfuscating the issue at hand.

<em>1. Request a formal written proposal.</em> Remind the change agent that the idea has to meet the administrative requirements. This is an awesome instrument of administrative righteousness. We carefully ascribe to a perceived supportive role by ensuring the agent of change fully understands the depth of our commitment is to a 100 percent administratively correct document that includes background, research, expert opinions, examples of application, desirable outcomes, and all supporting documentation in the correct format, properly assembled for staffing through required offices to achieve the maximum potential or approval.

<em>2. Send the proposal to a committee.</em> Committees serve only to maximize an individual's incompetence. They are, therefore, ideal for your role as a supporter of innovative proposals. Accept the change packet enthusiastically and promise to carefully review it. After stalling for a few days (and you can usually stretch the stalling way beyond any believable period), inform the agent of change that you loved her proposal and that you have submitted it to "the" committee. (The agent of change is female throughout this program, but certainly both genders attempt to be agents of change.) If you think ahead, the proposal can be misrouted to the wrong committee. When committee members let you know you sent it to them in error, ask them to forward the proposal to the correct committee. With luck, the proposal will disappear into administrative limbo and you will be able to honestly respond to any update requests with "I haven't heard from the committee yet, but I'll let you know as soon as I do."

<em>3. Schedule meetings to discuss the concept.</em> Talk about a proactive negative-positive support maneuver! You are so impressed by the proposed change that you are willing to call a meeting to advance it. Coordinating the schedules of the various players will take enough time that several meetings will be necessary to make sure all the "key players" are able to be involved in the discussion. Eventually, you'll need to start the meeting all over because of the modifications to the original proposal, but first the agent of change will have to "rework the proposal, ensuring that the concerns have adequately been addressed."

<em>4. Lose the proposal ("Don't remember it," "Didn't get that e-mail," "There was no attachment," "Are you sure you sent it to me?").</em> Sufficient to gain breathing space while formulating a more terminal strategy, this tactic provides breathing space to select and implement one of the more permanent tactics. (A word of caution when selecting this strategy: The agent of change may be more technologically adept than you are and be able to use e-mail tools such as requesting the system to notify the person when the e-mail is received by you or opened and read.) Eventually, the agent of change will be sharp enough to hand deliver a printed copy of the proposal, at which time you will demur and remind her that "I really need it in electronic form so I can e-mail it to ..." As a beginning tactic, this is an excellent tool, as it readily lends itself to being stage one of a series of multiple sequential endiscouragement strategies.

<em>5. No money in the budget.</em> A perennial favorite, this strategy allows you to be fully supportive while adeptly shuffling the blame to the bean counters. It permits immediate disapproval while holding out the carrot of potential adoption after the next budget cycle ("This is an excellent idea. Unfortunately, there's no money available this fiscal year, but I really think you should develop a budget request for funding that I can present during the next budget development cycle. Once we get it funded in the budget ..."). If carefully done, the budget impact statement becomes the first of a series of proposals that can be handled with different endiscouragement strategies until the agent of change's attention can be channeled elsewhere.

<em>6. "Have you talked to ... about it?"</em> While similar to rules 2 and 3, this rule is more nefarious in that you have appointed the agent of change the instrument of her own endiscouragement. The agent of change will wander from one overworked, disinterested employee to another as each key person refers her to someone else who needs to be "in the loop before I can help you." Eventually the agent of change will be locked into a self-instigated merry-go-round of eternal meetings. Best of all, she will be so busy trying to deal with all the meetings for her proposal that you will be able to call her to task for not being attentive to her job.

The agent of change is locked into a self-instigated merry-go-round of eternal meetings.

<em>7. "We don't, haven't, won't, can't ..."</em> In its flexibility and ubiquitousness, this is a truly Machiavellian strategy. One can add virtually any noun (time, funding, permission, infrastructure, etc.) or verb (allow, permit, condone, etc.) in an infinite variety of demurrers. Once the agent of change has rewritten the proposal to accommodate the negative aspect, you roll out a new variant that requires the agent of change to address a different concern. Another potential inherent in this strategy is its ability to rapidly morph into a seemingly new concern ("I haven't heard of any reason that would preclude adoption of this proposal, but the VP of Radicalization hasn't ..."). Tactics such as this quickly mire the agent of change into dealing with multiple endiscouragement strategies at the same time.

<em>8. "Sounds exciting, but I'll need more details."</em> This should be considered a beginning tactic. Once you have roped the agent of change into researching and responding to one omitted detail, it will, naturally, lead you to more and more omitted elements of the proposal that need further attention and that will lead naturally into other strategies ("Sounds exciting, but I'll need more details about appropriate policies and what other organizations are doing with this issue."). The agent of change will have been neatly diverted into strategy 6 due to the need to find out who is doing what, where, and how.

<em>9. "Yes, but ..."</em> This strategy is essentially one of perseverance-doggedly continuing to object for any reason. The protestation can be either rational ("Yes, but it does not correlate to our approved outcomes") or irrational ("Yes, but no one will like it"). The success of "Yes, but ..." relies on interminable opposition, which may or may not have any relationship to the proposal, may or may not make sense, and may or may not be appropriate. The objections must be a source of frustration to the agent of change, wearing her down to the point the person becomes so vexed that she abandons the proposal.

<em>10. Quote Nancy Reagan and "just say no."</em> Designed only for those permanently ensconced in their position and those who are absolutely sure of their power, this is a straightforward, simple, one-step strategy that crushes any hope for change in a single step. The agent of change submits her proposal, you say no, and the matter is ended. This strategy doubles as a great time saver in that it quashes further debate and discourages other agent of change wannabes. The downside is that it deprives you of the amusement of forcing the ever-hopeful agent of change to jump though hoops on the way to no.

In short, stifling and discouraging change is not difficult. A successful culture of no is the result of studious avoidance of innovation, the careful frustration of initiative, and the obfuscation inherent in any effective bureaucracy.

<em>David Donathan is chair of the Business, Management, and Computer Information Systems department at St. Catharine College (Ky.).</em>

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