Tag Archives: Coalitions

Four ways to break up a coalition

If you’re in the business of building formal or informal coalitions to get things done, you know that you are going to run into people who are working just as hard to undo your good work.  As I’m currently working on a legislative initiative, I’m seeing that dynamic in action.  Here are just a few of the many potential ways that opponents try to peel away supporters (be on guard):

  1. Allege that the proposed action is insensitive at best, unethical at worst, while attacking the motivation of the proponents. Few people want to be evil, and this will cause supporters to at least temporarily question their involvement. Response: Make sure coalition front organizations are recognized positive advocates for change and that communication facts and analysis as to who is affected and how are bulletproof.
  2. Claim that the effort, while perhaps not unethical, is certainly illegal or unconstitutional, especially for obscure or highly technical reasons.  Leave a whiff of litigation threat in the air. People are so skittish about getting sucked into the American legal system that some will start to flee.  Response: Come prepared with legal precedents and analysis that the proposed change has/can withstand legal challenge.
  3. Suggest that the proposed initiative is unneeded because existing entities or organizations can make the changes under their current framework or rules/statutes.  Standing pat is a comforting position for many folks and will sap their drive, ignoring the fact that change wouldn’t be in the air if those groups had done something already.  Response:  Prepare timeline of worsening conditions and/or failed opportunities to previously address needed change.
  4. Agree that change is needed and then propose a complex administrative or funding scheme for making the change happen. The more intricate the problem-solving approach – often offered under the guise of “if we’re going to fix it, let’s get it right the first time” – almost always guarantees failure.  It ensures that the effort will likely collapse under its own weight and inertia. Or it creates a situation in which there are so many things, each hated by one person or group, that the coalition driving for change falls apart.  Response:  Stay focused on solving only the precipitating need and, to use the cliché, harvesting the low-hanging fruit first.  Further change can be pursued when successes have been established and everyone wants to be on the winning side.

Making the business case for dedicated truck lanes

Our project team, which has been studying the business case for designing and building dedicated truck lanes on 800 miles of I-70, have just  submitted our project nomination for a Transportation Planning Excellence Award.

This biennial awards program is sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), in partnership with the Transportation Research Board (TRB).

Our nomination is focused on the innovative planning goals and strategies we employed on the I-70 Dedicated Truck Lanes Feasibility Study, which was sponsored by Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

The Transportation Planning Excellence Awards (TPEA) Program recognizes outstanding initiatives across the country to develop, plan, and implement innovative transportation planning practices. Winners represent a variety of planning organizations from across the county, and will be published in an Excellence in Transportation Planning resource report for their peers.


40 days and 40 nights

It’s only 40 days until I run my first official half-marathon – Waddell & Reed on Oct. 15. But I ran the 13-mile distance for the first time unofficially yesterday. 

I jumped ahead of my training schedule, prompted by driving the W&R route last week to get a sense of it.  I was left anxious by the experience and, rather than stew about it, I just went ahead and jumped from 11 miles to 13 miles distance to get it out of the way.  

It certainly makes me feel a little more confident that I can finish the W&R in October, bringing me one step closer to the colorful chaos that is the running with the bulls in Pamplona (see earlier posts for the tortured explanations of how they’re linked).  


Running with the bulls in Pamplona

I could give you a complicated explanation, undoubtedly Hemingway-tinged (apparently I’m not the only one), but running with the bulls in Pamplona is something I’ve wanted to do since I was a teen. 

Long-blocked in this pursuit by a smart, loving, long-suffering spouse, I didn’t think it was something that would ever happen.  But then in a misguided moment of weakness, Linda said “Sure, if you ever run a half marathon.”

Big mistake. I’ve transformed a sedentary streak of some years into a health and running kick that culminated today in registering to run in the Waddell & Reed Half Marathon on Oct. 15.

So the official one-year countdown to Pamplona has begun. 

And based on the reactions I’ve gotten from people with whom I’ve discussed this picaresque dream, I thought it might also serve as a small, real-world experiment in coalition building.

So I’m going to see how many people I may persuade to stand in a balcony above the stampeding hordes of bulls, oxen and terrified dreamers – or even join me below in the dash to the corrida. We’ll see how well the info, musings and writings I post here help spark a coalition of people focused on doing something that offers an unknowable mix of risk and reward – the core task of any coalitionist.

What the “Superstar Effect” may mean for stakeholder engagement

There’s an interesting piece below from the Frontal Cortex about how “superstars” can depress – rather than inspire – performance among those around them.

The question for coalitionists is whether this may also apply to the task, advisory or working groups that we often use to study issues, develop solutions or build consensus.

There’s always a lot of discussion in engagement efforts regarding group composition to get a balance of interests, experience or willingness to participate.

But seldom, if ever, is there a discussion as to whether high-quality participants – stakeholder superstars – may in effect suppress the quality of thought/participation by others.

If the “Tiger Woods effect” is universal, perhaps we need to add another filter layer as we construct our engagement groups, one that attempts to group people of comparable levels of ability, if we want to maximize participation and creativity.

The Superstar Effect: ”

I’ve got a new essay in the WSJ about Tiger Woods, the hazards of playing against a superstar, and why we choke in high-pressure situations. The subplot of the piece is the positive feedback loop of success, or why winning in the past makes us more likely to win in the future. Every underdog, it turns out, has to rage against the natural insecurities of the mind (take note, Butler):

Competitors playing a match against Bobby Fischer, perhaps the greatest chess player of all time, often came down with a mysterious affliction known as ‘Fischer-fear.’ Even fellow grandmasters were vulnerable to the effect, which could manifest itself as flu-like symptoms, migraines and spiking blood pressure. As Boris Spassky, Mr. Fischer’s greatest rival, once said: ‘When you play Bobby, it is not a question of whether you win or lose. It is a question of whether you survive.’

Recent research on what is known as the superstar effect demonstrates that such mental collapses aren’t limited to chess. While challenging competitions are supposed to bring out our best, these studies demonstrate that when people are forced to compete against a peer who seems far superior, they often don’t rise to the challenge. Instead, they give up.

The negative effect of superstars has been most clearly demonstrated in professional golf, which for the last decade has been dominated by Tiger Woods. Next week, Mr. Woods ends his self-imposed exile from the game and returns to the PGA Tour at the Masters Tournament, in Augusta, Ga. It will be his first competition since November, when he won the JBWere Masters in Australia.

According to a paper by Jennifer Brown, an applied macroeconomist at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Mr. Woods is such a dominating golfer that his presence in a tournament can make everyone else play significantly worse. Because his competitors expect him to win, they end up losing; success becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Ms. Brown argues that the superstar effect is not just relevant on the golf course. Instead, she suggests that the presence of superstars can be ‘de-motivating’ in a wide variety of competitions, from the sales office to the law firm. ‘Most people assume that competing against an elite performer makes everyone else step up their game and perform better,’ Ms. Brown says. ‘But the Tiger Woods data demonstrate that the opposite can also occur. It doesn’t matter if the superstar is an athlete or a corporate vice president. After all, why should we invest a lot of energy in a tournament that we’re probably going to lose?’

Ms. Brown discovered the superstar effect by analyzing data from every player in every PGA Tour event from 1999 to 2006. She chose golf for several reasons, from the lack of ‘confounding team dynamics’ to the immaculate statistics kept by the PGA. Most important, however, was the presence of Mr. Woods, who has dominated his sport in a way few others have.

The numbers back up the legend: When Mr. Woods’s break from golf began, in November, he had a World Golf Ranking score of 16.169, which was nearly twice the total of the next two players. He has more career major wins than any other active golfer, and has been awarded PGA Player of the Year a record 10 times.

Such domination appears to be deeply intimidating. Whenever Mr. Woods entered a tournament, every other golfer took, on average, 0.8 more strokes. This effect was even observable in the first round, with the presence of Mr. Woods leading to an additional 0.3 strokes among all golfers over the initial 18 holes. While this might sound like an insignificant difference, the average margin between first and second place in PGA Tour events is frequently just a single stroke. Interestingly, the superstar effect also varied depending on the player’s position on the leaderboard, with players closer to the lead showing a greater drop-off in performance. Based on this data, Ms. Brown calculated that the ‘superstar effect’ boosted Mr. Woods’s PGA earnings by nearly $5 million.

The analysis is really an investigation into economic tournament theory, which looks at competitive situations in which success is based on relative performance, and not absolute metrics. (It’s the difference between a sports game and a standardized test.) Modern management practice assumes that the best way to maximize employee performance is to institute sports-like tournaments, in which people compete directly against each other. Consider, for instance, the competitive structure put in place by former CEO Jack Welch at General Electric. He instituted what became known as the 20-70-10 rule: the top 20% of employees got generous financial bonuses, and the bottom 10% were ‘managed out.’

There is little doubt that, in many situations, such incentive structures lead to motivated employees, working hard for the top spots. But the presence of a superstar can reverse this dynamic, so that instead of trying our best we accept the inevitability of defeat.

According to Ms. Brown, the superstar effect is especially pronounced when the rewards for the competition are ‘nonlinear,’ or there is an extra incentive to finish first. (We assume that the superstar will win, so why chase after meaningless scraps?) Just look at golf: Not only does the tournament winner get a disproportionate amount of prize money, but he or she also gets all the glory.

Ms. Brown cites the competition among newly hired associates at a law firm as another example of a nonlinear incentive structure. ‘The lawyers know that most of them won’t be retained,’ she says. ‘They either win the competition, or they’re let go.’ The problem with such competitions is that when a superstar is present–when one of the legal associates is perceived as the clear favorite–every other lawyer is less likely to exert maximum effort. Because we assume we’re going to lose, we decide to cut our losses, which leads to an overall decrease in employee effort. The cutthroat competition made people less competitive.

Here’s the link for more.

Read the comments on this post…

(Via The Frontal Cortex.)

Keith and Rush are right for all the wrong reasons

If you listen too long to Keith Olbermann or Rush Limbaugh, you may come to believe politics are important only as a tool for beating the tar out of those you don’t like.

No wonder most people are turned off to politics all together.

That’s a shame, because politics – like coalitioning(?) – is really important as the art of the possible:  How do you  assemble the right groups of stakeholders to identify, implement and sustain effective solutions to important problems.?

And when it comes to achieving success on issues or projects that are complex, large-scale or heavily regulated or legislatively affected, likely nothing happens without engaging in – or at least understanding how – the politics of getting things done.

That’s why I recently counseled a new PR professional looking to be successful in public policy communications to familiar with – and hopefully comfortable at – working with governmental relations.

Even in outcome-neutral public involvement programs, success as defined by the client and the community will rest in part on how well goals and issues are communicated to elected and regulatory officials who have to implement any recommendations.

There are lots of ways to gain familiarity with politics and with the unique pressures and motivations that drive public servants.  But here are two great organizations and sources for becoming more adept at government affairs and using that skill appropriately:

Time spent with either of these two groups are likely to be more productive when it comes to politics than another minute spent with Keith and Rush.

How thin is your margin of error?

My wife and I consider The American Restaurant our go-to restaurant for special events; we have ever since our net worth became greater than a blank check and a three-day float.

But two off outings in a row – including a ruined New Year’s Eve dinner – has moved the Crown Center classic out of the “no brainer” category into “not now/maybe never?”

New Year’s Eve was the worst. High expectations.  Left a fun party for a highly anticipated late night of intimate dining and dancing.  Dressed to the nines (Linda beautiful as always and me, well, Cary had nothing to fear nor did innocent bystanders).  And ready for a great meal by Chef Gold.

What we got was “meh” food, incredibly slow service and no attention from our server (at one point he did the reverse “Walk like an Egyptian” to avoid eye contact towards the end of a 30-minute span during which no food was delivered to our table).  We eventually had to enlist the butter boy into being our emissary. And then all we got was an incredulous look when we balked at receiving two courses at the same time when the food finally arrived.

With Linda nauseated from no food (it’s now 11:15 pm), a dense cloud of forbidden cigarette smoke in the ladies lounge and the (mutually shared) bile of having a good night out, we left early and headed for home, two surprised dogs, shrimp marinara TV dinners and an irritable take on the AR.

And the thing is, it didn’t have to be that way.

IF … the restaurant had kept us informed about what was going on … acknowledged the problem and the difficulties it presented … sent an appropriate representative to confer with us … recognized our goal was getting something resembling food, not slices of bread falling like autumn leaves … and asked if there was anything that could be done to restore our confidence … things might have turned out differently.

And for us coalitionists, the key take-away may be that our margin of error on delivering the goods – and fixing problems when quality falls short – is slim. We had a two-decade investment of good times in the American, and quality issues have put a serious wobble in the relationship.  Most of the people we seek to engage don’t have a similar 20-year reservoir of confidence and good will in the institutions we may represent.