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Walk around your opponents

4 min read


In addition to my role as CEO of Impact Strategies International LLC, I do some work with Babson College and serve part-time in its global development programs. Every year, Babson honors well-known entrepreneurs in what we call Founders Day to celebrate the founding of our college by Roger Babson, an innovator and entrepreneur in his own right.

We invite two or three well-known entrepreneurs to come to the college, speak with our students, and share their insights on starting a business. Since entrepreneurship always involves innovation, they are by definition innovators as well as entrepreneurs.

In my experience, a number of the folks who have come, such as Richard Branson from Virgin, Barry Gordy from Motown, Sherry Lansing from Paramount and Magic Johnson, have what I call a “strong ego sense.” This means that they have a pretty high opinion of their opinions and are not afraid to let other people know them. They are extremely self-assured but don’t seem to ever cross the line into arrogance. Clearly their opinions have merit, or they probably would not have created multimillion-dollar and even billion-dollar businesses. They typically don’t suffer fools well, and they can easily run over people who don’t share their vision and passion for their ideas.

They also typically possess another trait you often find in startup entrepreneurs, which I refer to as a chip on the shoulder. As children, they probably liked their parents to say “no” just so they could prove them wrong. This chip on the shoulder is an interesting and functional trait for entrepreneurs because it actually energizes them when people tell them their idea won’t work or that it’s stupid. Instead of being depressed, they rub their hands together and say to themselves, “Yeah, just watch me.”

When you identify a roadblock (or a blockhead) standing in front of your idea, the worst thing you can do is try to run over it head-on. And never say out loud, “You just watch me do this anyway despite your misgivings” or “I’ll do it whether you like it or not.” Entrepreneurs can say this to venture capitalists because there is always another one they can approach.

So step back when you hear an irrational “no.” Walk around the barrier and see if there isn’t another angle of attack that is more likely to succeed. One of the most difficult things for an innovator to do is see his or her idea as others do. There is danger of loving your idea to death, and one of the best ways to avoid this is to walk around your idea and see it through other people’s eyes. They will spot flaws that you will never see, and they may see a different side to your idea that could make it even better.

One of the things I suggest to innovators to help them keep their ideas alive is to unbalance, surprise and redirect detractors by pointing out the risks of your idea before they do — showing that you have already developed risk-mitigation strategies. Never be Pollyannaish about your idea, as it only makes critics even more suspicious. You might not always like hearing what others have to say about your idea, especially if they are negative, but it doesn’t mean that you should give up.

Dr. Neal Thornberry is the founder and CEO of IMSTRAT LLC., a consulting firm that specializes in helping private- and public-sector organizations develop innovation strategies that create economic value by increasing an organization’s effectiveness and efficiency. His new book is “INNOVATION JUDO: Disarming Roadblocks and Blockheads on the Path to Creativity.”