We already tried that

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This is my second post in a row commenting on a post by John Kotter on HBR.org. Well… what can I say? He sure does write interesting stuff. This time he has a post titled: Getting Past the “But We Already Tried That” Response. As it sounds, it discusses the situation where good ideas are shot down by people saying “we already tried that”.

This is Kotter’s suggestion for the proper response that will help deal with such a comment:

The basic comeback for “We tried that already and it didn’t work” is to say something like: “That’s a good point, but that was then and this is today. You know, things change. They always do, for all companies everywhere. We don’t make the exact same products. Our customers are changing” [or other basic, clear, facts that illustrate how things have changed]. “I’ll make a call to the lawyers today, just to be safe” [if you haven’t already done so, which you may have] “and if there’s a problem with doing this now, we’ll try to solve it and get right back to you. But we need the 15%, right? So unless the lawyers scream, why don’t we agree now to go forward with the plan. I mean, it really is a terrific idea.”

Great suggestion, right? The comments on the post show that many people certainly agree it is. And I do to. I just don’t think it’s enough.

Kotter’s response has an underling assumption. Rational arguments convince people. While it can happen, this kind of response ignores the fact that the person who says “we tried that before” is not only giving a rational argument; he is also giving an emotional argument.

The person opposed might think it’s a bad idea. He also might be afraid that if it fails, the blame will fall on his department. Or he thinks that the proposed change might mean more work for him. Or maybe he is the guy who invented the part that people are proposing to take off. The thing is, we don’t know. And until we ask and discuss we won’t.

The proposed response ignores the fact that we don’t know. It does not suggest recognizing the contribution of that person. It does not suggest asking him to explain his argument or what really happened last time. It does not ask him based on his experience, what can we do to make this work this time, given the changes that happened since last time.

It is a nice response. It is better than arguing. But I am not sure it will succeed in achieving the desired results and in keeping that experienced guy in the loop of contributing. We do want to use his experience, right?

Oh, and one more thing… what if it really still can’t work? Isn’t that a possibility we should consider… after all they call it experience for a reason…

What do you think? How what you handle this kind of situation?




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