Ron McFarland, via, originally published on January 26, 2017

Purpose is the first thing to consider when you're assembling any team. If one person could achieve that purpose, then forming the team would be unnecessary. And if there was no main purpose, then you wouldn't need a team at all. But as soon as the task requires more expertise than a single person has, we encounter the issue of collective participation—an issue that, if not handled properly, could derail you.

Imagine a group of people trapped in a cave. No single person has full knowledge of how to get out, so everyone will need to work together, be open, and act collaboratively if they're going to do it. After (and only after) assembling the right task force can someone create the right environment for achieving the team's shared purpose.

But some people are actually very comfortable in the cave and would like to just stay there. In organizations, how do leaders handle individuals who actually resist productive change, people who are comfortable in the cave? And how do they go about finding people who do share their purpose but aren't in their organizations?

I made a career conducting sales training internationally, but when I began, few people even thought my work had value. So, I somehow devised a strategy for convincing them otherwise. That strategy was so successful that I decided to study it in depth and share it with others.

Gaining support

In established companies with strong corporate cultures, there are people that will fight change and, from behind the scenes, will fight any proposal for change. They want everyone to stay in that comfortable cave. When I was first approached to give overseas sales training, for example, I received heavy resistance from some key people. They pushed to convince others that someone in Tokyo could not provide sales training—only basic product training would be successful.

I somehow solved this problem, but didn't really know how I did it at the time. So, I started studying what consultants recommend about how to change the thinking in companies that resisted to change. From one study by researcher Laurence Haughton, I learned that for the average change proposal, 83% of people in your organization will not support you from the beginning. Roughly 17% will support you from the beginning, but 60% of the people would support you only after seeing a pilot case succeed, when they can actually see that the idea is safe to try. Lastly, there are some people who will fight any change, no matter how good it is.

Here are the steps I learned:

  • Start with a pilot project
  • Outsmart the CAVE people
  • Follow through fast
  • Outsmart the CAVE bosses
  • Move to full operation.

1. Start with a pilot project

Find a project with both high value and a high chance for success—not a large, expensive, long-term, global activity. Then, find key people who can see the value of the project, who understand its value, and who will fight for it. These people should not just be "nice guys" or "friends"; they must believe in its purpose and have some skills/experience that will help move the project forward. And don't shoot for a huge success the first time. It should be just successful enough to permit you to learn and keep moving forward.

In my case, I held my first sales seminar in Singapore at a small vehicle dealership. It was not a huge success, but it was successful enough that people started talking about what quality sales training could achieve. At that time, I was stuck in a cave (a job I didn't want to do). This pilot sales training was my road map to get out of my cave.

2. Outsmart the CAVE people

CAVE is actually an acronym I learned from Laurence Haughton. It stands for Citizens Against Virtually Everything.

You must identify these people, because they will covertly attempt to block any progress in your project, especially in the early stages when it is most vulnerable. They're easy to spot: They are always negative. They use "but," "if," and "why," in excess, just to stall you. They ask for detailed information when it isn't available easily. They spend too much time on the problem, not looking for any solution. They think every failure is the beginning of a trend. They often attack people instead of studying the problem. They make statements that are counterproductive but cannot be confirmed easily.

Avoid the CAVE people; do not let them into the discussion of the project too early. They've adopted the attitude they have because they don't see value in the changes required. They are comfortable in the cave. So try to get them to do something else. You should seek out key people in the 17% group I mentioned above, people that want change, and have very private preparation meetings with them.

When I was in Isuzu Motors (partly owned by General Motors), the sales training project started in a joint venture distribution company that sold to the smaller countries in the world, mainly in Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. My private team was made up of a GM person from Chevrolet, an Isuzu product planning executive and that distribution company's sales planning staff. I kept everyone else out of the loop.

3. Follow through fast

CAVE people like to go slowly, so act quickly. Their ability to negatively influence your project will weaken if you have a small success story before they are involved—if you've managed to address their inevitable objections before they can even express them. Again, choose a pilot project with a high chance of success, something that can show quick results. Then promote that success, like a bold headline on an advertisement.

Once the word of my successful seminar in Singapore began to circulate, other regions started realizing the benefits of sales training. Just after that Singapore seminar, I was commissioned to give four more in Malaysia.

4. Outsmart CAVE bosses

Once you have your first mini-project success, promote the project in a targeted way to key leaders who could influence any CAVE bosses. Get the team that worked on the project to tell key people the success story. Front line personnel and/or even customers can provide powerful testimonials as well. CAVE managers often concern themselves only with sales and profits, so promote the project's value in terms of cost savings, reduced waste, and increased sales.

From that first successful seminar in Singapore and others that followed, I promoted heavily their successes to key front line sales department staff handling Isuzu's direct sales channels and General Motors channels that really wanted to see progress. After giving their acceptance, they took their training requests to their superiors sighting the sales increase that occurred in the distribution company.

5. Move to full operation

Once top management is on board, announce to the entire organization the successful pilot projects. Have discussions for expanding on the project.

Using the above procedures, I gave seminars in more than 60 countries worldwide over a 21-year career. So I did get out of the cave—and really saw a lot of the world.