Appeasing the Devil: How to Defend your Ideas without the Risk
A military designing battle plans will task its sneakiest officers to simulate the enemy force. These officers attack the plans ruthlessly, exploiting the smallest weaknesses. Having someone perform the same service for your ideas is invaluable, strengthening them and identifying where they need more work. However, a failure to adequately defend your idea risks discrediting it, killing a great idea because you did not adequately stand up for it. Much as we can miss typos in our own work or flaws in our projects, we can be blind to the weaknesses of our own ideas. Like anything we create, we tend to hold our own ideas close to our hearts. That’s why it is important to not become defensive or flustered when confronted with constructive criticism. Here are some ways to stick to give your idea the dignity it deserves while also maintaining an openness to improvement and criticism:
1. Practice and Call to Arms
Get yourself an argument ‘sparring partner’. Though it may not feel that way, having someone play devil’s advocate with your idea would actually sharpen your argument to a fine edge. Remember, preparation is key so you need the practice before the real fight. Let your argument take a beating in practice so that you can tweak it and have it be in the best shape for the real deal. Don’t let a few counter-arguments discourage you, be stronger for it. If this process uncovers a fatal flaw you never thought of, consider it a case of practice making perfect!
2. Be in the Know
Know it very, very well. Even if you are presenting a preliminary concept, you need to have a clear vision of what your idea is trying to achieve, what the required inputs will be and what the final outputs will look like. The shape and scope of the idea should be crystal clear in your mind, even if you are still unsure on the delivery of the project.
3. Bring the Basics
Get ready to answer common questions raised by your proposal. If anything, you should have already thought about all the ‘frequently asked questions’ related to your project beforehand. How much will the project cost? Where will the resource come from? Who will lead it and why? What is the timeframe? How does it fit your organisation’s strategic vision? What are the risks and how are they mitigated? Think ahead so that you are prepared for anything that might come your way.
If you know ahead of time who your interrogator is going to be, consider how they will approach your idea. Someone with an accounting background, for example, will probably have detailed fiduciary questions. A public relations guru will want to know the media implications of your idea. Prepare these subjects extensively according to who you are likely to pitch to so that you are fully engaged in a discussion they would be happy to probe deeper into.
5. Arm Yourself!
Demonstrate that you have thought through your proposal by incorporating answers to the questions above in your initial presentation. The more boxes you tick early on, the less chance a question will catch you off guard or force you to dig nervously through paperwork looking for the answer.
6. Stay On Target
Avoid being drawn into debates far wider than your proposal. A meeting to discuss your idea for a new development program is not the time or the place to argue the merits of foreign aid itself. Be vigilant and pull the focus back to the matter at hand to stay in control. Aimless debate makes waste!
7. Put it in a Box
If an issue you haven’t considered is flagged by your argument ‘sparring partner’, be sure to immediately categorise it. Is it a deal breaker or just a risk that needs a mitigation strategy? Do not let a non-fatal issue dominate the meeting or appear worse than it is, or you may be worse for it.
8. Learn and Adapt
There is no rule that confines your sparring partner to the role of critic. If they had the experience to spot a problem, they may know how such problems were addressed in other projects. If a valid objection is raised, enlist their aid in overcoming it to the purpose of your project. Don’t fear them. Instead, learn from them.
9. Stick the Landing
How do you want to be remembered after the meeting? Leave the meeting on a positive note. Thank the advocate and all of those who were present for their constructive input. Summarise briefly their key points to demonstrate that you have taken their thoughts on board. Share your next steps. Whether they killed your idea or endorsed it, they did you a service.