Run the Ground Game
Do your efforts to persuade colleagues make a limited impact?
t hurts when your brilliant idea is shot down by colleagues or managers.
What’s even worse is when people nod politely, but dismiss your idea behind your back.
A common trap that you may fall into (we all have) is believing that a good idea should speak for itself. “It’s so obvious,” you say to yourself. Yet your are taken aback when you discover that not only do other people not see the innate brilliance of your idea, but they have completely different ideas of their own.
Once you’ve come to terms with reality—that different people have different opinions—you then roll up your sleeves and try to persuade them to like your idea. Isn't this what thousands of courtroom TV dramas and airport self-help books have taught us? While you may make some short-term headway here, trying to persuade someone is the wrong path to take.
Why persuasion backfires
Even if you convince the person to like your idea in the moment, what’s to say they won’t change their mind again the day after? And how committed will they be to doing the long hard work to implement the idea?
Rhetorical tools are very useful for presenting your idea in a clear and compelling way. However, once you have presented your project idea, your goal should pivot to bringing the person into the coalition, and this requires an approach that is the heart and soul of community organizing: the ground game.
What is the Ground Game?
The name “ground game” refers to the fact that organizers are “on the ground,” talking to members of their community in one-to-one conversations. In community organizing—and especially political organizing—the ground game is combined with the “air game,” in which organizers use traditional media (tv, radio, newspapers, etc.) to reach larger numbers of people in their community. Many organizing campaigns fail when they mistakenly invest too much time in the air game, and not enough time in the ground game. Learn more here
“Creating co-ownership requires you to have an organizer's mindset”
For community organizers, the aim of the ground game is to build a broad coalition of people who will be passionately committed to taking action, both in the short-term and the long-term.
When applying the ground game at work, you should have an additional goal: to develop a solution that is viable. Fortunately, you can achieve both these goals the same way, by creating “co-ownership” with each person in the coalition.
Co-ownership is when someone not only likes your project idea, but feels a sense of attachment to it, almost as if it was their own idea. This creates a much stronger motivation in them to transform the idea into reality.
Creating co-ownership requires you to have an organizer’s mindset so that you can gradually move the person up the pyramid of co-ownership.(4)
The Pyramid of Co-Ownership
The pyramid starts with the person becoming aware of the specific challenge or opportunity you see, and how it relates to your goals for the organization. If they share the same overall goals for the organization, they will be interested in hearing your idea about how to overcome the challenge (or take advantage of the opportunity). Next, they start to participate in turning the idea into a more viable solution. This leads them to commit to the organizing process and making the solution a reality. Lastly, they lead others in the organizing process so as to ensure a successful mobilization of people in the implementation phase.
In order for the ground game to work its magic, the best organizers start early, so that they have time for multiple rounds of conversation and action with each person. Even though every conversation has a slightly different objective, in general you want to share ideas and information, get input, and then make an Ask of the person (learn more below). It is extremely important to show appreciation for the person's time, effort, and resources.
After each conversation, both people take action to deliver results, and then check in with each other in the next conversation.
Does everyone need to move to the top of the pyramid?
It's much more than a conversation
The Structure of the Ground Game
This ground game approach is the backbone of successful social and political organizing, and it translates extremely well to the business world.
The ground game can be split into two phases: Engage and Anchor. The Engage phase should be done with all stakeholders that you want to bring into the coalition, whereas the Anchor phase should be limited to only the key stakeholders, the people whom you would also like to take leadership roles in the coalition.
The goal of the Engage phase is to create awareness about the challenge or opportunity, interest in your idea, and a bit of participation. Nothing more.
The biggest mistake you could make would be to push the person for immediate agreement or commitment. That will only lead to resistance, or at the very best, a shallow commitment.
The most successful community organizers have a very different approach. First, they speak openly about their own beliefs and opinions in the early conversations,7 but they never try to debate the other person, or persuade them to adopt the same beliefs. Instead, they ask the other person for their opinion, and they listen respectfully.
This is a crucial moment. You do not listen just to be polite. You listen because you genuinely want the person's input (opinion and information). (8) By initiating this open exchange of ideas and information, you accomplish three very important goals:
This approach requires patience. Remember, true engagement needs to occur over time if it’s going to be genuine and sustainable. You don’t need people to be super engaged in the very beginning. You must learn to be comfortable with resistance, while not letting it discourage your own motivation.
Do not be deceived by an immediate positive reaction either. There is a big difference between someone liking your idea and actively working for its implementation.
Community organizers have two more steps in this phase: When they talk about their own beliefs, they connect them to a broader topic, which makes it easier to find common ground with the person they’re talking to. 7 You can apply this same approach at work by connecting your project idea to the organization’s larger mission or strategy. Once the community organizer has presented their opinion, asked the other person for their opinion, and established some common ground, they always conclude the conversation by making a small Ask.
Making a small Ask when engaging someone at work (e.g. asking the person to send you some information or put you into contact with someone else) is an extremely important step in gently transitioning from discussion to action. This approach also helps you assess their level of engagement, and gives you a reason to follow up with the person at a later date.
The Engage phase generally takes a few iterations over a period of time, but when the person becomes engaged, they become genuinely engaged, because they are now participating. Learn how here
Knowing your coalition members
You can have engage conversations with groups of people as well, but it is very important to combine them with one-to-one conversations, so that each person is able to give input and you are able to assess their level of engagement.
With the majority of your stakeholders, it’s enough that they are aware, interested, and participating by giving their input (feedback and information). At this point, all you need to do is keep them informed until it’s time to mobilize. However, you need your key stakeholders to be 100% committed to ensuring the successful implementation of the project. To this end, you need to move into the Anchor phase of the ground game.
The goal of the Anchor phase is for the key stakeholders (formal and informal) to feel a strong sense of co-ownership in the project idea, so that they are motivated to make it succeed. You achieve this by bringing the person into the organizing process.
First, you increase their participation by asking the person to give more input to your original idea, making it a more viable solution. Second, you create accountability by asking the person to commit to taking action.
The more freedom people are given in deciding how they deliver on each Ask, the more motivated they are to deliver, and each time the person delivers on an Ask, the more their sense of co-ownership grows. Of course, accountability goes both ways. The more someone sees that you deliver on your commitments, the more trust they place in you and the more motivated they are to do their part.
As in the Engage phase, the Anchor phase requires multiple rounds of conversation and action over time, with each Ask increasing in level of responsibility and formality.
A big milestone is when the person stops saying “your project idea,” and instead says “our project idea;” this is how you know they are ready to be formally and/or publicly asked to commit to the project idea.(9) Once they have demonstrated accountability in delivering on each Ask, and formally committed to the project idea, then they are ready to lead others in the organizing process. Learn how here
The difference between community organizing and organizing at work
In many situations, a formal approval of a project idea is required in order to allocate resources; this is the final iteration in the Anchor phase and you should push for a public announcement in order to ensure 100% commitment.
The next time you sit down with a colleague to share an idea for a project, don’t try to persuade them. Instead, run the ground game.
Through iterative cycles of conversation, action, and follow-up over time you create co-ownership. Once all stakeholders have gone through the Engage phase, and all the key stakeholders have gone through the Anchor phase, you are much more likely to have a viable solution and a coalition of people who are strongly committed (formally and informally) to doing the hard work that is necessary to achieve a lasting change. Then it’s time to mobilize.
1. Do you know someone who has a Ground Game type of approach at work?
What do they do?
What have the results been?
2. Have you used a Ground Game type of approach yourself?
In what ways was the approach you used similar to or different from the approach suggested in this article?
What kind of results did you get?
Have you ever jumped to the Anchor phase too early? What were the consequences?
Have you ever started the Ground Game too late? What were the consequences?
Do you have a current or upcoming project that would benefit from running the Ground Game?
Make sure you are genuinely interested in getting the input of stakeholders, instead of just trying to get them “onboard.”
Remember to Engage before you Anchor
Make sure to deliver on your own commitments and follow up with the other person on their commitments
J. Zurewink & P. Devine – "Attitude Importance and Resistance to Persuasion," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
N. Frijda et. al – Emotions and Beliefs
J. Kaplan et. al – "Neural Correlates of Maintaining one's political beliefs in the face of counter evidence," Nature
Shane Parrish – "Critical Mass and Tipping Points," fs.blog
F. Capra & P. L. Luisi – The Systems View of Life
E. McKenna & H. Han – Groundbreakers
Paul Lawrence – "How to Deal with Resistance to Change," in Organizational Behavior and Administration, P. Lawrence, L. Barnes, J. Lorsch
Peter Senge – The Fifth Discipline
Annie Murphy Paul – The Extended Mind
D. Sandow & A.M. Allen – "The Nature of Social Collaboration," solonline.org
Jane MaAlevey – No Shortcuts