Overcoming NMI Syndrome, and Living to Talk About It

In my decades researching change and 20 years leading changes at companies large and small in numerous industries, I’ve seen no end to NMI Syndrome.

NMI Syndrome is an enemy of change. It’s a leverage point that leads to unsuccessful change, but when handled correctly, it can lead to even greater change than we imagine.

What is NMI Syndrome? Well, NMI stands for Not My Idea. NMI Syndrome—a term of my own creation—eats at change initiatives in a few ways.

In my book, I talk about a boss who I call the Foolish Foister. This boss brings their idea to a meeting of their team and tries to convince them that it’s the team’s idea. He or she may start with an open-ended discussion, but soon the boss is trying to foist his or her own idea on everyone. Everyone knows what’s happening, and everyone nevertheless eventually “comes around” to the idea.

Later, when these leaders are sharing the idea with their own teams, someone asks a question about the initiative that cuts right through the idea, and the leaders haven’t thought enough about the idea to answer the question. It’s not their idea after all. They show by their body language, vocal cues and even their answers that their excitement for the idea is contrived. People pick up on this, and the change initiative never gains full support.

Another example of NMI Syndrome happens when there’s a snag. Perhaps the new software doesn’t work as advertised, or the org changes are hurting customer satisfaction. Every change initiative has some sort of hiccup or other. When this happens, the people who didn’t come up with the idea (i.e. the people who will make the change successful or a failure) decide it’s not a good idea after all. They have no ownership…it wasn’t their idea…so the change loses momentum.

How do we overcome NMI Syndrome? Well, we have to give up some control and help our people feel heard on the matter. We first share with our people the direction we need to go and why, then we ask them for their ideas to get there. We don’t get all the ideas that we came up with, but our own ideas are likely naïve: Our people know our business’s idiosyncrasies better than we do. And because the ideas we—the leadership team—eventually settle on are based on our own listening to their ideas, our people take us further than we could have imagined. It was “their” idea, after all.

Think this is unrealistic? Ask the leaders at Pixar. They wanted a 10-15% cut in costs. They asked their people for their ideas. The top idea suggested would give them a 40% cut in costs. When people feel heard—when it’s truly THEIR idea—they’ll do remarkable things to make it happen.

So, let’s nix this NMI Syndrome. We may want to see our own ideas come to fruition, but they almost never actually get there.

Let me know what you think. I look forward to being in touch.

Al Comeaux

Primed for Change Community

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