What do you do with resistant, high level people?

We’ve all faced the situation in which the buyer has provided wholehearted support, the project is underway and the money is in the bank when, like a knock on the back of the head, an influential senior person says, “This is nonsense, and I’m not supporting it.”

Ironically, this is not a situation in which you can run back to the economic buyer and plead for clout. The resistor is probably a very key and successful person, or he or she wouldn’t be able to so openly cast doubt on the project. And even though you’ve already been paid, there might be future payments in danger and there is definitely a huge threat to any future projects if the resistor puts the kibosh on this one.

There are two basic approaches to high level resistors, preventive action and contingent action.

Preventive action should occur at the time of conceptual agreement. Ask the buyer who the key influencers are and what their reactions to the project might be. Ask to meet with them one-on-one. (Individual meetings are almost always better than group meetings because you can divide and conquer, avoid the ego dynamics that occur with high level peers in one room, and appeal to the varied self-interests of diverse executives.) If you find entrenched resistance, you have the opportunity to find the cause and plan to deal with it prior to the launch of the project. You can, at minimum, warn the economic buyer of the potential problem, so that it doesn’t appear as if legitimate objection was raised that you forgot to handle once the project was underway.

Which brings us to contingent action. Sometimes, even with the best of planning, an executive will turn against your program because of anything from a perceived threat to a general apathy. There are two main contingent action approaches.

The first is to find that person’s self-interests, demonstrate how the project’s goals are compatible with them, and actively keep them involved in every aspect so that there is no possibility of them being out of the loop. I call this approach “alignment.” People only change if they see a self-interest in so doing, therefore it’s important to create a sense of very personal gain for that resistor. Sometimes that can’t be done, because the self-interest is political, unreasonable, or in direct conflict with your project. This requires the second kind of contingent action, which is borrowed from the military.

In this scenario, by-pass the stronghold of opposition. Don’t get bloody. Acknowledge the pocket of resistance, but move on aggressively to your goals. If you are successful, the pocket will eventually collapse through lack of support. You can sometimes bypass more than one resistor that way, but if you find yourself trying to bypass everyone, then something is wrong with the battle plan.

Resistance is not uncommon even after you’ve gained the commitment and support of the economic buyer. The key is to be prepared to prevent it at the outset, and/or deal with it in the most expeditious manner during the project as it arises. Resistance doesn’t mean you’re doing a poor job—you might be getting resistance precisely because you’re doing such a good job—but failure to eventually resolve it one way or another is a sign of a poor job and a threat to future work.