How many good ideas are never implemented because someone talks them into the ground? One naysayer on the team comes up with three or four very good reasons why the plan won’t work, and nobody else can offer a convincing rebuttal. Even if they don’t manage to kill the project outright, some other possible ill effects of negative thinking include procrastination, self-fulfilling prophecies, and even sabotage.

Rejecting negative thoughts is the second principle in a project management mantra that TechRepublic member tburkett shared with us a couple of weeks ago in response to a post that basically addressed the third principle (taking action and adjusting). Last week I wrote about the first principle of the mantra (getting started promptly), and this post rounds out the set by covering the second principle.

What do I mean by negative thinking?

I’m not talking about constructive criticism or the identification of constraints and potential obstacles that must be overcome. I’m also not advocating riding on unbridled optimism all the way to the project management equivalent of the Little Bighorn. I’m talking about objections that are specifically engineered to defeat the project. These are statements (however elaborately supported) that can essentially be paraphrased: “It can’t be done.”

Where do such negative thoughts come from?

Sometimes if you engage the naysayer in a nonoppositional manner, you’ll start to hear phrases like, “We’ve been burned before, and we’re not going to get burned again.” Not getting burned is generally a good thing, so the negativity may come from benevolent intentions. But rather than trying to identify specific threats and how to overcome them, these people have generalized the danger to a whole class of actions to avoid forever.

One strategy for breaking down this resistance is to walk through each aspect of the threat: “We can’t do this step because…?” Then separate it from the rest of the plan, and talk about other ways to accomplish the goal of that specific step.

Sometimes the objections are so strenuous and absolute that the best approach is to give the naysayer some rein. Affirm the negative thinking to the point that it becomes ridiculous. “Okay, I guess we just sit on our thumbs and wait for obsolescence then.” After the laughter dies down and the red-faced naysayer replies, “No, of course not! That’s not what I meant at all.” Then you reply, “So what do you suggest we do about it?” Many naysayers like to be able to say, “I told you it wouldn’t work” later on. Shifting some of the responsibility for the decision onto their shoulders precludes that option.

Objections don’t kill ideas, people do

People use objections to justify their “ideacide.” But objections can also be used to constrain and modify an idea without fatally injuring it.

Some people actively want to torpedo new ideas because they’re happy with the status quo. As a consultant, you may encounter situations within your client’s organization where project failure is politically expedient for some members. Often, you’re regarded as the outsider, and your newfangled ways may pose a perceived threat to an employee’s status. If you can identify the naysayer’s motives, you can sometimes thwart their actions by actively engaging the threatened person and granting them a measure of authority over how things develop. Rather than taking the “I’m the expert” stance, try “I’m just here to help you decide what you want to do to meet your goals.”

Negativity often stems more from personal interactions than from technical or business reasons. When that’s the case, even a sound technical or business argument against it may prove unsuccessful. Instead, I recommend that you identify the source and treat the real cause.

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