Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 8, Issue 28;   July 9, 2008: Approval Ploys

Approval Ploys

by

If you approve or evaluate proposals or requests made by others, you've probably noticed patterns approval seekers use to enhance their success rates. Here are some tactics approval seekers use.

Approval or denial of proposals or requests can have impact beyond the disposition of the issue at hand. It also has political impact. It can make or break a career, render other projects moot, or doom or create whole lines of business. Since so much can be at stake, approval seekers have an incentive to use all manner of techniques to enhance approval rates. Sometimes these techniques become habitual — they use them whether the stakes are high or low.

A field of Cereal Rye

A field of Cereal Rye (Secale cereale). Unlike other domes­ticated crops, such as wheat and barley, cereal rye was not bred from wild stock by intention. When wheat began to be cultivated in Neolithic times, wild rye was a weed. As a weed, it was enough like wheat to grow in wheat fields. Human farmers would pull the weed when they found it, using visual cues to identify the rye. Inevitably, they would miss a few individual plants, especially those that looked most like wheat. Unintentionally, humans were thus providing selective pressure on the rye population, forcing it over tens and hundreds of generations to evolve to look (among several other favored attributes) more and more like wheat. In time, wild rye "learned" to mimic wheat. This form of species mimicry is called Vavilovian mimicry. Crops bred in this manner by humans are called secondary crops. For a comprehensive explanation of mimicry, see Georges Pasteur: A Classification Review of Mimicry Systems in the Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, Vol. 13, (1982), pp. 169-199.

In effect, the wild rye was using an approval ploy to obtain the same favored treatment that humans were then bestowing on wheat. By including itself among the wheat plants, it was using a technique identified here as "hiding among sheep." In organizations, the authors of investment opportunities try to configure their opportunities to match as closely as possible their understanding of the pattern the approvers are searching for. The task of the approvers, then, is to separate the wheat from the rye — a task that isn't always easy. Over time, in any given organization and for any set of players, the task becomes increasingly difficult. The task is easiest in new or newly reconfigured organizations, because the approvers' patterns are less well understood by approval seekers. Beyond organizations, we find analogous mimicry dynamics in securities markets, retail sales and marketing, mortgage origination, the game of poker, and venture investing, among many other domains. Photo courtesy U.S Department of Agriculture.

Approvers and recommenders would do well to recognize these techniques. When they do, they can be more alert to them, and better maintain objectivity. In a politically healthy culture, recommendations of the sophisticated approver are more likely to be based on the merits; in an unhealthy culture, sophisticated approvers are less likely to commit political blunders.

Here are some of the tactics of approval seekers.

Misrepresenting an approval deadline or the narrowness of a "window of opportunity"
When done to create a sense of urgency, this tactic helps them jump the priority queue. But it's also a way to claim resources before other projects are considered, or to reduce the time available for judicious consideration.
Hiding among sheep
Grouping the request with non-controversial requests might make it look more innocent or less risky than it actually is.
Using misleading competitive intelligence
Exaggerating the validity or content of competitive intelligence is especially effective when the approver is fearful about the competitive position of the organization.
Appeals to personal interest
Appealing to the approver's personal interest often helps, despite the obvious implications about the approver's corruptibility. These appeals include implying that the proposal was the approver's idea, or that it was motivated by the approver's vision, or suggesting that it will help accomplish a political goal of the approver.
Overvaluing contributions to or synergy with other pet projects
This is another form of appeal to personal interest, but it enables the seeker to appeal (unreasonably) to the personal interest of political allies of the approver. Analogous attributes of alternative investments might also be misrepresented negatively.
Competitive champion character assassination
Underestimation and
misrepresentation are
probably the leading
causes of budget
and schedule overruns
When the integrity or performance of the champion of a competitive investment opportunity is suddenly called into question, it's indeed possible that misdeeds are afoot. However, the misdeeds might not be those alleged by the approval seeker; rather, in an ironic twist, they might be the allegations of the approval seeker.
Misrepresenting costs or time required
Underestimation and misrepresentation are probably the leading causes of budget and schedule overruns. Comments about costs and time required for alternative investments might also be misrepresentations. Subject all claims and estimates to close scrutiny.
Misrepresenting risks
Risks of the proposed effort, when misrepresented, are usually underestimated or omitted. But when the proposal includes analysis of alternative investments, risks of those alternatives can be exaggerated.

Sometimes I fear that articles like this serve as handbooks for people with dark motives. But I hope that shining light in dark corners makes the world a brighter place. My hopes conquer my fears. Go to top Top  Next issue: How to Prepare for Difficult Conversations  Next Issue

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