5 ways to fight resistance to sustainability, from Muhammad Yunus

In the emerging field of green business, we struggle each day to persuade skeptics to invest in a new product, switch to a new service or try out a new way of working that would better serve our world's natural environment and population. Day after day, we encounter resistance to change.

Muhammad Yunus, of Grameen Bank and the worldwide microcredit movement, spent more than 30 years promoting the idea of microcredit -- first in his native Bangladesh and later around the world. Growing the Grameen Bank from a small outpost to a bank that lent to millions of poor women was a long and trying process, and he learned a great deal from it. So can we.

Yunus succeeded because he is a master at overcoming resistance to new ideas. He sold the world on the practicality of microcredit and its underlying concept that poor people in developing countries can be trusted to pay back small loans. Today, he is set to do the same with the concept of social business, which aims to make a profit while addressing any number of social problems.

To understand Yunus's success at formenting change, we must first know how to recognize resistance, which is so commonplace it often discourages while passing unnoticed. Resistance manifests in everything from cancelled meetings to postponed decisions to everyday phrases such as "We've tried that before and it didn't work." 

To avoid discouragement and burnout, we need to address this resistance proactively, yet patiently. While conducting research for my book Twenty-Seven Dollars and a Dream: How Muhammad Yunus Changed the World and What It Cost Him, I identified Yunus's five main strategies for dealing effectively with the resistance he encountered.

1. Embrace resistance

Buy-in comes slowly. Skillful innovators often set the process in motion by talking with people one-on-one. In conversations, they move toward the resistance rather than attacking or pointing out flaws in the other's thinking. They carefully ask about all possible fears, reactions and concerns.

Yunus, for example, sends staff from his energy company, Grameen Shakti, to every house in a small village to simply talk about solar panels. He understands that this dialogue can't be rushed: Taking the time to invite the expression of all the negative thoughts is a necessary step before anyone can accept the new way. 

2. Create a compelling story

For people to accept a new product or idea, they need to understand why it matters. A compelling narrative complete with color, drama and emotion will engage them and garner their support in ways that dry lists of the product's features and benefits, for example, simply can't.

Yunus often talks about how he initiated his partnership with Groupe Danone (a.k.a. Dannon Yogurt in the U.S.). It began at lunch in Paris with Groupe Danone's CEO Franck Riboud. Yunus told Riboud about the appalling number of children in Bangladesh who are malnourished and described their stunted growth. He then shared his idea of addressing this widespread malnutrition with a new kind of yogurt that added many nutrients such as vitamin A, zinc, calcium and iodine the children lacked in their diet.

He also described the challenges: Because there is no refrigeration in Bangladeshi villages and the climate is steamy hot, distribution would be a problem. The yogurt would need to taste good so that children would eat it, and be cheap enough for people to buy it.

Riboud was captivated immediately. By the end of the lunch he had agreed to a partnership with Yunus that became a social business. The storyteller had worked his magic.

3. Maintain your focus

During the 30-plus years Yunus spent promoting the idea of microcredit, he remained dead-set on this and only this idea. Everything he did -- from touring the countryside, meeting with borrowers, listening to reports from his managers and improving his systems for greater effectiveness -- was connected to the sole purpose of promoting microcredit and helping it take root. He spoke about microcredit, wrote about it and ultimately taught others to replicate his efforts at the Grameen Bank.

Only in 2006, after 3 decades of devotion exclusively to the microcredit cause, did he announce a shift in focus. He did so at the ceremony when he was awarded the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, explaining that going forward, he would spend much of his time promoting social business.

Rarely has anyone demonstrated so clearly as Yunus that selling an innovation is never a quick and easy job, or the power of single-minded determination.

4. Engage small groups

Research has demonstrated that engaging people in a small discussion group is an excellent way to get them to buy into a new idea. Peer conversations, it turns out, are far more effective at making ideas catch on and information spread than speeches or written material.

At the Grameen Bank, Yunus assigned his borrowers to small groups of five. While the original intent was the idea that women in a small group would help each other when they ran into trouble paying their loans, the groups did far more than that: At the weekly meetings, borrowers -- 97 percent of whom are women who nearly unanimously are poor, illiterate and have never touched money or left their family compounds -- make new friends. They chat about how to grow their small businesses and exchange tips about how to manage their loans.

The weekly small group meetings become a school for change.

5. Be flexible and patient

Despite his astonishing ability to stay focused for decades on his overarching goal, Yunus remained flexible throughout. During one of our interviews in Bangladesh, he explained how he approached getting the fearful and reluctant women to accept their first small loan. "I knew it was not going to happen right away. I had lots of contingency plans. I never thought Plan A would work out so I was getting ready for Plan B and Plan C and so on. So we were not in a rush, but we didn't give up. We were very stubborn."

For example, when Yunus was developing a water company to purify the naturally arsenic-laden water, he discovered that Bangladeshi village women simply would not spend much money on water. He kept changing and improving the technology until he could get the price down low enough for people to buy it.

Identify roadblocks to ease the path to change

Following Yunus's advice can increasing chances of success. More than that, understanding the dynamics of resistance and adopting the appropriate strategies for dealing with it make it easier to anticipate and adjust to the slow pace of change.

Photo of Muhammad Yunus by Lev Radin via Shutterstock