W hen we introduce ideas around agile strategy, some folks get stuck on how the jerks will react.  For example last week someone asked, “What happens when you encounter loud, obstinate people? Don’t they simply disrupt the process?”

The answer is, of course, “Yes, if you let them.”

One of the beauties of our democracy is the concept of equality. Everyone, no matter their station, has an equal voice. Yet, in recent years we have strayed too far to accommodate the jerks. You know these people. They are the ”civic vandals” all too willing to stop our collective progress so they can vent.

We see difficult people everywhere these days. They make for good television news. But they also show up at school board meetings, planning commission hearings, or any type of community meeting. They have an ax to grind, and they demand that you watch while they grind.

After years of encountering difficult people in community meetings, I am convinced that we are watching learned behavior. We have allowed our civic discourse to deteriorate.  Certainly, the media has not helped. Talk radio and cable news have radicalized our thinking and coarsened our speech.

We would be mistaken if we thought that disruption by jerks was isolated. No, it’s creeped into meetings within our businesses, our universities, our government.  We must address the challenge of difficult people. But how?

Guidance for dealing with jerks

Here are five practical rules to follow.

1. Shift your thinking from “stakeholders” to “shareholders”

The idea of stakeholders has gained popularity over the last 30 years. As corporate managers recognized that their activities could be constrained by people outside the four walls of the corporation, they developed the concept of “stakeholders”.  The central idea is that progress can best be made when “all the stakeholders are at the table.”  In government, the idea is similar, but slightly different. Public policy can only be set effectively if “all the stakeholders are at the table.”

Of course, characterizing the challenge in this way creates its own problems. Stakeholders act quite naturally to protect their stake. They guard their boundaries. They jump the trespassers.

There’s another problem: stakeholder thinking empowers the jerks.  If I am both a stakeholder and a jerk, you have given me the power to undermine the process. Since I am stakeholder, if I see something I don’t like, I can disrupt the process (it’s legit, I’m a stakeholder) or simply walk away. By walking away, I diminish everyone’s work. If I am a big enough stakeholder – – or a big enough jerk – – I can destroy the process completely.

Here’s the major problem with “stakeholder thinking”; it runs against collaboration. Stakeholders guard their boundaries. They jump on trespassers.

But what if we shift our thinking from stakeholders to shareholders in a new network?  What if we reframe our challenge?  What if we think of ourselves as building new networks of collaboration? What if we are designing and guiding networks of the willing among people willing to pursue a new opportunity by investing their time and resources? What if we are assembling shareholders in new “networks of the willing”?

2. Build a trusted core team to anchor a new network

Effective networks have tight cores and porous boundaries. The tight core enables the network to get complicated stuff done. The porous boundaries allows the network to grow and adapt. Designing and guiding new networks of the willing requires first building a core team. It’s not about the sole leader anymore. Rather, in networks, leadership is distributed. Effective core teams bring together people with “cognitive diversity”. They see the world in different ways, and they are willing to share their perspectives.

3. Design and guide an open process with engaging experiences

Imagine a core team of six people. Each member has an extensive network of 50 people on whom they can call. (The effective limit of  each individual’s network is about 150,  but let’s just set the number 50.) The core team then has the opportunity to design and guide a network of 300 people.   And if a portion of those 300 people engage their connections, the network can grow even further.  To build these networks, however, people must invest their time and share their gifts. They will only do that if we design a process that is open, fair and engaging.

4. Set rules of civility and enforce them

These engaging experiences can only reliably take place in trusted spaces with clear rules of civility.  These safe spaces enable complex collective thinking to take place. Disruptions can be averted with clear rules. So, for example, some years ago we convened a open workshop on the Space Coast to deal with the challenges of the Shuttle shutdown.  Lisa, the organizer, came to me before the session concerned that a particularly disruptive individual had just shown up. “What will we do?” I reassured Lisa not to worry.

Before I started my presentation I outlined our civic rule and how it would be enforced. I told the audience, “We have one rule and that is this: we will behave toward one another in ways that build trust and mutual respect. I will enforce the rule. I will give violators one warning. But I will not give you two warnings. I will escort you from the room.”  After that brief announcement, we had no problems. One of the jobs of the core team involves setting and enforcing these rules of civility. Setting and enforcing rules of civility may be uncomfortable, but it can be done. Ask any librarian.

5. Engage the “willing pragmatists” to do the doable

You may not have encountered the term “willing pragmatist”, but you know who these people are. They are the volunteers that step forward to do the countless tasks when a network of volunteers begins to move.  The network leaders may come up with the idea, they may convene the meeting, they may even view themselves as the “entrepreneurs” capable of moving mountains. But they do not do the bulk of the work. That’s left to the “willing  pragmatists.” These people are very careful of their time, and they will only engage when they see a worthy outcome in their mind’s eye. The job of the core team is to focus the expansive network of “willing pragmatists” on doing the doable.

Vic Lichtenberg, former provost of Purdue and a mentor of mine, once explained how he created innovations within the complex world of academia. He told me, “I focused my effort on the first third of the faculty. I knew the first third would bring along a second third. I forgot the third third.”

Wise advice. Don’t engage with the jerks.

Ed Morrison is Director of the Purdue Agile Strategy Lab. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. For the past five or six years, he has been developing new, agile approaches to strategy in open, loosely joined networks, a discipline he calls Strategic Doing. Prior to starting his economic development work, Ed worked for Telesis, a corporate strategy consulting firm. In this position, he served on consulting teams for clients such as Ford Motor Company, Volvo, and General Electric. He conducted manufacturing cost studies in the U.S., Japan, Mexico, Canada, Italy, Sweden, and France. Ed started his professional career in Washington, D.C., where he has served as a legislative assistant to an Ohio Congressman, staff attorney in the Federal Trade Commission, and staff counsel in the US Senate. He holds a BA degree cum laude with honors from Yale University and MBA and JD degrees from the University of Virginia.

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