How to deal with Corporate Antibodies
The four types of people that can kill your project and how to win them over.
In large corporations, great ideas and projects are often killed before ever seeing the light of day. We sure had our fair share of such failures, and I know first-hand that they are a very regular occurrence.
As designers and innovators, we have to face the fact that our work is often not evaluated based on its strength and merit, but based on someone else’s preconceived notions. “Corporate Politics” is the name of the game.
Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash
I previously wrote about the importance of empathizing with stakeholders to win them over. As designers, we cannot reserve our empathy purely for the customer or user.
We need to invest time to understand key stakeholders and work with them. While they might not share our views exactly, they often have valid reasons for their positions and can be won over — if we only try.
To add more granularity and quality to stakeholders management, I want to introduce you to the four corporate antibodies we regularly encounter. The framework is closely related to the work of Phil McKinney and how he structures the most common responses in large organizations into four distinct groups.
What is essential to understand is that each of them has their own valid reasons and trigger points for their reactions. Similarly, there are distinct strategies for best dealing with the kind of antibody you might encounter.
Let’s meet them, shall we?
The four Corporate Antibodies
Large corporations have usually grown into structures that are in place to protect what has been built and to harvest the fruits a mature business generates.
One thing that a corporation is not natively set up for is change. In fact, change and variation are the very things that these structures aim to keep at a minimum; to exploit a mature business in a stable and predictable manner. Hence introducing change is hard.
Yet this is often precisely what designers are all about — changing systems that do not serve people anymore. And in that quest, they invariably activate corporate antibodies, looking to protect the Status Quo. Yet not all change is invariably killed — evolutionary change can be embraced in a static system, if its necessity is recognized.
What are these antibodies, and how can we disarm them?
The “Ego Antibody”
Characteristics: The Ego Antibody is all about protecting their territory. Typical statements will be in the direction of “That’s my job, not yours” or “That’s not how it works around here.” They have a strong need for recognition and are typically motivated by accruing organizational power. They are most likely working in a different business unit than you and are looking to get as much as possible under their control.
How to win them over: Make very clear how you are not challenging them or their area of responsibility. If they feel challenged, they are sure to sabotage your project. To win them over, you will need to spend time to bring them in and listen to them. Hear them out, let them contribute some ideas, and ideally share some of the credit with them. If they have a sense of ownership in your project, they’ll be a great ally down the road.
Example: A few years back, we worked with the Digital Transformation function of a big Telco in South-East Asia. The project we were tasked with directly interfered with the business unit looking after their retail stores and the leader of that group was up in arms. We spent a lot of time bringing him in, hearing him out, and showing how we were there to make him more successful and not challenge him. When it came to the final board presentation, he was our staunchest ally.
The “Fatigued Antibody”
Characteristics: As it says in the title, these people lack the energy to go along with your proposal. They feel like they have seen it all tried before, and it never worked.
They have expanded their political capital for something similar a few years back, and it all backfired. Expanding any additional time or resources on anything but Business-As-Usual feels like a chore to them, with little prospect of success.
Photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash
How to win them over: Most likely, they have seen similar projects (“similar” in their mind) attempted before. Get into a conversation with them to understand what happened. Listen more than you talk. Make them feel heard, empathize with them, and gently point out why this time, things are genuinely different. Get them engaged by asking for their opinion and show that you respect their concerns, and they can play a vital part in avoiding mistakes this time around.
Example: This is one of the most regular occurrences in our business. Often we are hired to support a new transformation or digital team bring about change when two to three attempts already failed in the last few years.
When we were brought into a similar situation in a cruise company a few years back, we heard from the business: “We have seen this before. IT tried to make this happen, took two years, and nothing came out of it. It’ll be the same this time.”
We addressed these concerns by closely involving the business in the project, identifying quick wins, and showing fast results. Within a few weeks, the first prototypes were ready for testing. Within three months, the first product was launched. After that, we were able to win over key stakeholders and turn them into champions for the program.
The “No-Risk Antibody”
Characteristics: In every big organization, there are invariably many people who do not want to take any real risks. Yet by the very nature of design and innovation work, doing something new is always risky. You will hear them say, “Let me play devil’s advocate” or “How do you know this will work?”. They are only looking to engage in activities they can be sure will work, and are therefore one of the biggest showstoppers for any real attempts at change and innovation.
How to win them over: One way to win them over is to have reference cases or data at hand that can help make your case. If you can showcase how something similar has worked in another circumstance, that can help. Another way is to highlight how your innovation progress is iterative and tailor-made for risk reduction. Through structured experimenting and testing, we can reduce the risk of failure along the way and kill something early and cheaply, if we learn that it won’t work.
Example: The way these antibodies often work is not by blocking an entire project, but rather by killing ambitious proposals within the project, leading to plain vanilla results. Consider the case of an industrial firm looking to innovate with new business models. We were called in to help them come up with and execute these new directions. One idea that emerged from the research was a product-as-a-service model, which is completely counter to anything they had traditionally ever done.
The Head of Sales for the business unit was very skeptical and did not want to try. He believed this could never work. We spent a lot of time speaking with him in our work, highlighting other industry case studies where a similar model worked elsewhere. We also ran small experiments to test with customers and invited him along to observe the interactions. Ultimately the customer reactions convinced him of the validity.
The “Comfort Antibody”
Characteristics: Any large organization has a long history of success. And success can quickly breed complacency. The Comfort Antibody is so satisfied with the company’s history and trajectory that they do not see any need for change. “Never touch a running system” is their motto. They will emphasize how the company is very successful with the current way of doing things, and that everything is still working just fine.
How to win them over: You need to move the goal post to get them on your side. Highlight how the definition of success is changing in the industry and how things will not remain the same. The key message is: “What got us here won’t get us there.” Acknowledge the history of success and the validity of the previous working way, yet highlight how change is needed to write another decade of successful history.
Example: When working with a Chemicals client, we encountered a widespread culture of complacency. The company was the market leader in many segments, and no one in the business saw a need to change what they were doing and how they were doing it. With the CEO’s help, who was sponsoring the change program, we engaged the leaders of the business units in an intervention. With a clear message from the top, supplemented by the evidence we brought in about how the industry is changing, a few leaders could be convinced to try something new.
Stakeholder management, the right way
As you see, for every Corporate Antibody you encounter, there is a strategy to win them over. After all, no one inherently wants to stand in the way of genuine progress. Often we just have to reframe what we are doing for other people to be able to buy into it.
We need to expand the all-important empathy we always focus on the customer/user also towards our stakeholders; to get meet them where they are and get them on our side.
Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash
If we genuinely care about creating great outcomes that see the light of day, we need to get much better at stakeholder management. Designers often demand a seat at the table, yet that seat comes with new requirements towards our soft skills.
Embracing these additional layers of complexity will enable us to positively influence large corporations globally and bring about the positive change we desire.
So the next time you encounter those Corporate Antibodies, try one of the above strategies in winning them over.
Sebastian is Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer of MING Labs, a global strategic design and digital transformation consultancy with 6 offices in 4 countries. He started and grew MING Labs in Shanghai, China for 5 years, before moving to Singapore and establishing an office here. With now globally 80+ experts, Sebastian, and MING Labs work with MNCs, local champions, SMEs, and government agencies in setting their transformation vision and strategy, as well as helping them execute against that with organizational enablement and implementation of key strategic initiatives across Business Design, Experience Design and Technology Implementation.