Focus on impact, not approval

These great words of wisdom from Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-hour Workweek, struck a chord with me. I’ve been doing issues management and stakeholder relations for over a decade, and I’ve noticed that organizations too often get distracted by wanting to win over the entire world. Tim Ferriss gives some great advice about differentiating between popularity and impact.

But I think there is another key point that he does not address.  In order to move from approval to impact, organizations need to move from ideology to pragmatism.

I’ve spent a lot of time working on international agricultural policy, especially in a development context. Too often, commentary about food and agriculture is based on personal preferences and pure dogma with a total disregard for actual impact on the ground (or the difference between anecdotal results and what happens when an approach is scaled up). Whether it is “conventional” agriculture or “organic”, both sides are too busy defending a doctrine. The only way forward will be to focus on concrete goals and to move forward in an incremental manner, integrating ideas from both sides and applying them in ways that are appropriate to local conditions, so with different solutions for each set of circumstances. Adjustments will need to be made along the way in order to address issues that emerge as solutions are scaled up in order to counter the law of unintended consequences.

Another related point to bear in mind is that if you offer a single option, it is easy for the naysayers to tear it apart.  This is what James E. Lukaszewski calls “Death by question.” Providing options, he says, “is powerful, because it can withstand death by question.” This is another way to disarm haters: take the polarity out of the debate. Reframe the question.

This is another reason that I urge organizations to move away from ideology in their issues management and focus on outcomes. Issues communication too often becomes an exercise in defending a dogma which people either accept or reject wholesale. True issues management looks at impact, and it is more difficult to argue with positive results. An important caveat here is the need to define holistic objectives: results that are measured too narrowly (without taking into account side effects) may just lead back to a polarized debate. Gaining a broader perspective on your outcomes and objectives is therefore one of the most compelling reasons for interacting with external stakeholders whose worldviews differ: it helps test whether your outcomes are defined in sufficiently broad and holistic terms to resist death by question.

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