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Create Your Team of Rivals

From Clear Thinking Communications and Susan Parker
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Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has popularized the term “team of rivals” in her description of President Lincoln’s decision to appoint several former rivals for the presidency to his Cabinet. By doing so, the president surrounded himself with people who debated and argued with him. He received the benefit of other ways of thinking and viewing the world. He was a better leader by having the strength to invite other people and their viewpoints to the table.


It’s a great idea and one that can help you in your communications work.

By creating your own “team of rivals” you will strengthen your work as a communicator. By team of rivals, I mean anyone who thinks in a different way than you do.

At the heart of good communication is clear thinking. The better you can think through what you want to say and who you want to reach, the better you communicate.

The problem is that it isn’t enough to rely on your own clear thinking. Your approach to viewing the world is shaped by your experiences, your biases and the way you use your brain. To get the level you have reached, it’s an approach that works. But it’s just not enough.

It’s important to assemble a team that has differing strengths.


Here’s an example of the rut that many communications professionals fall into: an unquestioned love of storytelling.  In communications, many of us believe that story telling is the central way to get our message across. People will only be moved to take action, the theory goes, if they are moved by the emotion of a well told story. I agree—mostly. Story telling can always play a central role in any communications campaign.


But stories aren’t the panacea that communications professionals make them out to be. They can be misleading, incomplete and worst of all, irritating to the audience who you want to reach.

I once wrote a report on a multi-million program that paired volunteers with people who were homebound. The program abounded with feel-good stories, which I duly reported.

But my editor, a former program officer at a large foundation, was unimpressed. So what? she asked. Where is the data that shows that this program made a difference in the community, in the health care system, in any way at all?

She was right and her hard-nosed insistence on finding the facts is shared by others in the field. As a result, I went back, read the evaluation reports again, and found only stories that illustrated findings from the evaluation. I included some stories that exemplified evaluation findings about the failures of the program. It made my report stronger and more likely to reach a broader audience, including people like my data-driven editor.

On your team of rivals, find someone who loves data—it may be someone in accounting, evaluation or a program director. They will help you stay grounded and make sure that your communications materials respond to people like them.

Here’s another good person to have on your team: the skeptic. This can be a person who asks a million questions, who wants to know about the failures of a program that you wish that organizations would just go ahead and replicate or embrace whole heartedly. The skeptic is often irritating—and worth listening to closely.

The skeptic is great to have on your team because she asks questions that many people in your audience will ask as well. People know that no program that a foundation funds or nonprofit organization carries out is perfect. They want to know what worked and what didn’t. What lessons did you learn from your failures? What are you doing differently as a result? They will not buy the story you are trying to sell unless you acknowledge that the program had its flaws.

In recent years, foundations like the James Irvine Foundation have received a lot of attention and praise because they are open about the mistakes they’ve made. The Irvine Foundation’s “Mid-Course Corrections” report about the failures of one of its largest programs was published in 2007 and is still generating talk in 2009.

I recently spoke to an executive at a large nonprofit who felt that his organization had made a major mistake by failing to communicate the failures of its key program. One of the consequences of that failure was that the organization’s own employees did not know that they were about to lose their jobs.

“What I like about the Irvine report is that they very clearly said what went wrong and why,” this executive said. “That’s what I felt was missing with us. When there isn’t clear communication people feel betrayed.”

If you don’t take into account these other ways of thinking, you risk missing out on connecting with a huge segment of the people who you most want to influence.  


To create your own team of rivals, walk down the hallway. When you are thinking about a communications campaign or simply how to get a message across take the time to walk down to accounting, the evaluation department, administration or anywhere you can find someone who thinks differently than you do.

If it’s someone who slightly annoys you with their requests for data or skeptical questions, all the better. Ask them what they think about what you’re doing. Ask them for their input.  And listen. Withhold judgment. See what they say. Pay attention to how it is different from the way you think.


You will get valuable information, I promise.


And it won’t cost you a cent.

When you withhold judgment about another person’s way of thinking, you can see another view—a view that many of the people that you’re trying to reach might hold as well.

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(c) 2009 Susan Parker, Clear Thinking Communications. All rights reserved. You are free to use material from the Clear Thinking ezine in whole or in part as long as you include complete attribution, including a live web site link. Please also notify me where the material will appear.
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