Polarising People: How Far Is Too Far?

If you can’t see the video above, click here, or watch it directly on YouTube.

This video above is one of my favourites — by Apple Fellow, AllTop Founder and experienced startup entreprenuer Guy Kawasaki. The presentation is called “The Art of Innovation”, which contains a number of steps that I have adhered to for years now, and found them all to not only be true, but to be foundational truths that have taken me further than I would’ve gone without them.

One of Guy’s points is “Polarise People” — something I’ve talked about before. The idea is you want people to love you or hate you, but never to feel ambivalent about you. Jim Collins talks about this in From Good To Great (affiliate link) when he says that “good is the enemy of great” — meaning in today’s competitive market, having something that is just “good” is your enemy — you have to make it great.

My concern though, is that not all innovation polarises people. Let’s take bloggers like Chris Brogan, Amber Naslund, Olivier Blanchard and Trey Pennington. They are writing innovative content, doing innovative things, and Chris in particular has a massive following who retweet any and every thing thing that he says. But Chris and the rest I’ve listed here don’t polarise people so much.

In fact, if you look the blogs that top the AdAge Power150, you’ll see few there polarise people at all. These are very popular blogs with big audiences — but I don’t see this polarising principle at play so much here.

The reason why I’m thinking about this is I received an email at the end of last week welcoming me to the Power150, which was a wonderful surprise only bettered by seeing a pingback to my blog from AllTop, where I’ve been added under the Innovation category. I’m really thrilled about this, and it’s really nice to have recognition from my peers and bodies like AdAge and AllTop that stive to bring the best together.

But will I succeed on those forums? Because I’m a polariser: any regular here knows I’ve got critics, have had criticism in the comments many, many times, and that I welcome it because I often write in a way that pushes people to love me or hate me. And I’m fine with that. But do I have to face the reality that this kind of behaviour means I will never top any of those lists and have those audiences?

Don’t get my wrong — I’m not changing. But I am keen to test this truth against your experiences and really see if it stands.

Your Leading Thoughts

  • When has polarising people worked for you?
  • When has it not?

Archived Comments

  • I have Robin Dickinson to thank for discovering your refreshing blog. I’ll be back for more.

    A connection recently sent me a quote, which I received as a great compliment.

    “Causing occasional offence is not the greatest sin. Being boring, self-righteous or unkind compete for that award” Justice Michael Kirby http://michaelkirby.com.au

  • / Scott Gould

    Hey Catherine – glad to have you come by.

    I totally agree with the quote – but I still wonder, how far is too far? Or rather, should we not be concerned about how far, and instead understand where we should not focus our efforts?

    Keen to hear your thoughts,
    Scott

  • Thank you for inviting me to include my thoughts.

    In my humble opinion, I believe we need to be relevant, remain relevant, and think and act in a way that’s sustainable.

    It’s easier to drive long term transformation if we think strategically and add short term value up front.

    The challenge for innovative people is patience. Patience with the process, and the pace of change. I believe successful transformation is achieved when we strive for balance as much as change.

    Cheers
    Catherine

  • / Scott Gould

    Good insights – thank you!

    Do you have an example of how you did this?

  • annholman

    Hum, this is an interesting point. Had a think about it and I agree with Guy in his video. You can’t be everything to everyone and you shouldn’t want to be. Its important that people value what you do and they love it than them be indifferent to you. That’s how I feel anyway.

    If you’re like Marmite so be it. At least that way you’re customers are selecting and deselecting as they go along. Interesting from a customer grading point of view. This has huge implications for building a business community which has got me thinking……aargh! :)

  • / Scott Gould

    But “not being everything to everyone” is not the same as polarising people.

    I, personally, actively seek to polarise. I will write, organise, act, speak in such a way that demands love or hate.

    So what I’m realising is that this way, I can’t expect to be like Chris, for instance

  • My background is in Government and the Non – Profit sector. Added to which my late husband and I owned and operated a small to medium commercial printing company.

    In all environments, I found myself in the role of change agent. Some outcomes were successful, some mixed. One particular outcome I suspect was successful, but I still feel was a dismal failure. (for the sake of this post, and my pride, I’ll leave that alone)

    An example that springs to mind was my role as Red Shield Club Secretary for The Salvation Army in Sydney. For twelve months I managed the programmed giving called ‘The Red Shield Club.’

    Before I was appointed, revenue hovered around $750,000 for roughly seven years. I came on board while the program was undergoing a complete overhaul and rewrite, we were introducing online programmed giving, in addition to direct mail donations.

    It wasn’t appreciated, but I literally stood over the Tech guys up stairs. Whenever the Club program crashed, or even the slightest glitch, (which was nearly every day) I was on their door step. In fact I was often chastised for taking up all the Tech oxygen, but I was a woman with a mission.

    In the process we discovered literally thousands of givers who had fallen into some mysterious black internet hole. In addition to sweetly bullying the Tech guys, I personally called donors to enquire about their lapsed giving.

    To my Supervisors delight, I reported the donors were disappointed they had dropped off over a year ago, but were happy to be reinstated.

    I rewarded donors with events and tours of The Salvation Army various centers like the William Booth Rehabilitation Center, Collaroy Plateau retreat, and Women’s facilities.

    Long story short, I left after twelve months, during which time I received a call from the Public Relations Officer from THQ. He was eager to report, within fifteen months from my start date, the Red Shield Club giving had not only broke the $750,000 ceiling, but increased to $1.5 million. A success he credited to my efforts.

    The success was easy, as I believed in the work of The Salvation Army, and the value of my role.

  • http://chrisbrogan.com Chris Brogan

    The detail Guy skips is that polarization is good for getting inbound links. It’s not especially useful in building strong communities. So, if I want GOOGLE to know where I am, I should polarize people. If I want a passionate community who pretty much retweets anything I say, I should fill them with as much love as I can spare.

    By the way, sometimes the right answer is to Polarize. : )

  • / Scott Gould

    Hey Chris – great to have you stop by.

    I’d agree with you – polarising might get you known, but it doesn’t build community. Communities want to feel safe.

    I certainly know that with Like Minds I have to be far less polarising and more welcoming. Something which I’ve pointed to you as doing well – you don’t make enemies.

    BTW – strangest thing – I dreamt I went to prison last night, and you were there!

  • annholman

    Yep see what you mean Scott. Chris’ point is interesting, are you not by building a community polarizing….some people will not want to join? I think it depends what the essence of your community is and what they expect.

    Maybe I’m seeing this differently…..

  • / Scott Gould

    Good point Ann. A community does create an ‘in’ or ‘out’ effect.

    I think your point of selecting / deselecting provides a useful image for me

  • / Scott Gould

    Catherine,

    Thank you so much for this. This is certainly a story of making things “complete” – another of Guy’s points. Your belief in the cause gave you the motivation to make things complete, as you say.

    It’s good to get into your head and understand you!

  • Scott, great post! I’m with you on the polarizing strategy. I think success in that strategy though is based on getting the trusted/influential folks on the positive side. If you are successful with polarizing, you’ll get more passionate word of mouth…good and bad. If you have trusted and influential “critics”, you’ll have a failed strategy. You’ve got me on positive side!

  • / Scott Gould

    Thanks Dave.

    My critics don’t tend to be too influential. Someone just retweeted your tweet to this post, saying “’Polarising’ is good = pushing the limits, sailing into uncharted waters. What’s wrong, in my view, is inducing a ‘controversy’.”

    I wonder if that is perhaps a better way to look at this.

    As I think more about Chris’ comments below, I do wonder – some communities are based on a polarising view – very much like my Church I guess!

    Thanks, BTW, for being on the positive side. You and Jeff are a constant source of inspiration.

  • jimkelley63

    Great post and great comments…why does it seem that “polarizing” has a negative baseline. I see the ability to polarize as being positive in that it usually creates thought, stirs passion, and move ideas to a point that they can become reality. I have always believed that process of growth and change is more often then not “evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary”; much of that evolution comes from opposing thought processes that often agree on something somewhere in the middle. By no means am I suggesting compromising is always the right solution (another topic, another day). I have always enjoyed conversations, working with, and being with people that engage me in meaningful and sometimes opposing thoughts. It is possible to have opposing thoughts, yet maintain the same core values. To throw in an old sports analogy “no pain no gain” Cheers! Make it a great day.

  • Scott, I think you’ve articulated the difference between sharing an opinion and being defined by one. Innovation is by its nature; change. People tend to resist change, new ideas and new ways of doing business.

    “Making Innovation Work” – by Wharton Publishing lists these people as organisational antibodies. They play a useful role in larger business, resisting change that is harmful for business, and resisting external market forces. The problem is, you have to win these people over, who tend to be strong characters. If polarising helps you get your point across to these people then great, but know your audience. Polarising is a useful tool when you need it, and its rare these people suffer from a lack of personality.

    There isn’t a right or a wrong here. Only what works, given what you intend to achieve. Good case of the 80/20 thing. Controversy creates engagement. If you introduce that to a strong community who already know of your identify, then they already trust that you aren’t bringing this to their attention for no reason.

    Caution duly noted.

  • annholman

    I like this Sy. Think you have articulated what I wanted to say better than me. Thanks. We are working on a model at the moment that says there is no one definition only the one the business agrees on in building a strong community.

  • / Scott Gould

    Thanks for the comment Jim.

    I certainly think the ability to polarise is a key skill – when people are knowingly doing it. Like Steve Jobs. There are some people who are just plain rude.

    Chris did share a good thought on polarising getting you attention, but being very inclusive and non-confrontational seems to be necessary for building community.

    Certainly, I see both sides of this. HOw, once you have polarised people, do you draw them into your community? Is it a case of caring for your own – without polarising once people are with you?

  • / Scott Gould

    “the difference between sharing an opinion and being defined by one”

    Love it. Such a good way to communicate this. I think you can do this without polarising so much, right?

  • I guess it depends who you are. If you’re naturally a polariser, be that. If you’re naturally a bit more thoughtful, be that. The last thing you want is a community drinking the coolaid to sing “Amen”. You want a thoughtful community, willing to challenge, engage and change. How do you get one of those?

  • / Scott Gould

    Well, you know I hate “what you do think?”, and then “Good post”

    I totally want engagement, and I polarise people about this. I push connections over community. I turn down mass appeal. I push personal connections and relationships.

    Hence, most people commenting here, know each other. I make it my business to ensure they do.

  • simstewart

    First of all congratulations on making the Power150 Scott, good to be seen as an innovator. With regard polarising people I’m not sure it’s something you have to do to be successful but I do think being afraid to polarise people will hold you back.

    Finally, I’m sure you’ll be successful on those forums but if you’re not what does that mean? Surely if you’re an innovator then your true place is on the ‘Future Power150’ if that list exists yet.

  • / Scott Gould

    Thanks Sim for the congrats :-)

    I think, yes, if you’re afraid to polarise then that is a very negative thing because you can’t stand up for what you believe in – namely, yourself.

    And sure, I may not do good on those forums. Which is why, as an innovator, perhaps you resign yourself to not having mass appeal.

    But do people on the Power150 really have mass appeal? Aren’t they just innovators and early adopters anyways?

  • simstewart

    I’d say no to mass appeal. The power150 wouldn’t appeal to many people outside of marketing, and even within marketing I’d guess you’re looking at tech savvy people who like the internet and probably see it as where the future of marketing is headed.

  • / Scott Gould

    Agreed – I think this opens up two layers really – polarising overall, and polarising within your niche

  • AmberNaslund

    Scott –

    I think there’s a vast difference between polarizing people simply for the sake of stirring up controversy, and polarizing people because you take a stand.

    In my case, I speak my mind. Period. Respectfully as much as I can, but I don’t pull punches. And despite what you might think, that polarizes plenty of people. You’re not in my inbox, so you don’t see those that throw rocks at me in private because they can’t do so in public. I know Chris has plenty of rocks thrown at him, too.

    But I’m not willing to polarize people just to kick up dirt. That might get me short term attention for the wrong reasons, but I’m in this for the long haul to be a leader, to be helpful, to teach, and to learn, and to build a community that can and will subsist without me at the center of it. Sometimes that means I’m not going to have people agree with me, sometimes we’ll all be cheering together. But I’m not willing to artificially manufacture anything and compromise who I am simply because Guy Kawasaki says that polarizing is good.

    I am who and what I am, as Popeye would say. I’m good with that. :)

  • / Scott Gould

    Hey Amber

    First of all, really nice to have you comment – thanks for your thoughts.

    I agree – polarising is something you should not be afraid of, but not necessarily go out of your way to do. It should come from who you are.

    I also hold that there are things you should polarise over, and things not to. The rule I have is “only go to war where the spoils are worth the endeavour”

    Thanks again, so much, for coming by :-)

  • This seems like a useful link at this point http://bobsutton.typepad.com/my_weblog/2006/07/...

    From the link

    “I’ve been pretty obsessed about the difference between smart people and wise people for years. I tried to write a book called “The Attitude of Wisdom” a couple times. And the virtues of wise people – those who have the courage to act on their knowledge, but the humility to doubt what they know “

  • / Scott Gould

    Good find – thanks for that :-)

  • banksy6

    Hey Scott sorry not had time to drop in recently. Just wanted to say congrats on the Adage and Alltop listings – Awesome news fella.

  • / Scott Gould

    Thanks Al – it’s mostly a badge but nice to have a little bit of recognition!

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