Selling your ideas: Giving some wattage to those lightbulbs

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  • Selling Your IdeasGiving Some Wattageto Those Lightbulbs

    L I A VO LU M E 28 , N U M B E R 3 J U LY/AU G U ST 20 0 8



    When you want your organization to buy into your ideas, there are two

    important things to consider. The first is scanning your organizations

    environment to determine such things as how well each idea fits with

    the organizations goals and what level of support youll need from key

    people. The second is collecting a set of tactics you can use to begin

    communicating and implementing your ideas. Doing these two things

    will improve your chances of accomplishing your objectivesolving a

    problem or making an improvement for the benefit of everyone.

    by Haro ld Schar la tt

    ouve got an idea that youwant to sell to your organization.Maybe its a project you want to bein charge of. Or maybe its a pieceof a bigger project you want tomove forward. It could be animprovement on an existing processor just something you believe willmake your group, team, or organiza-tion function better. You want othersto understand and endorse your ideabefore you take it public and risk afalse start.

    If you dont have a strategy forselling your idea, you face severalrisks. You may not be able toaccomplish your objective: the prob-

    lem may not be solved or theimprovement not made. Others mayperceive you as ineffective andunable to follow through. Yourdirect reports may lose confidencein you.

    If you want to be successful ingetting others to consider and adoptyour ideas, there are two importantthings to consider. The first is con-ducting a scan of your organizationsenvironment: this clarifies your situ-ation in relation to the people youhave to influence as part of sellingyour ideas. The second is collectingtactics you can employ when youbegin trying to sell your ideas.

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    By assessing your organizationalenvironment, you lay the ground-work for success in getting yourideas accepted and implemented.Here are some questions to considerin this assessment process:How does your idea fit with theorganizations goals? Your organi-zations explicit goals are recorded(and ideally, well communicated).You can find evidence of these goalsin the organizations vision and mis-sion statements, its strategic objec-tives, and its structure. The implicitgoals of the organization are oftenless visible. The more closely youcan align your idea with the organi-zations spoken and unspoken goals,the better the chance you will haveof getting your idea accepted andimplemented.

    For example, lets assume thatyour organization places a highvalue on teamwork across its divi-sions. Thats a goal it states in itsworking principles and a practicethat managers throughout the organ-ization strive to achieve. If you tieyour idea to a sense of teamworkand can present it as supporting andenabling that goal, theres a goodchance that people will support youridea. However, if your idea goesagainst any of the organizationswritten or unwritten goals, objec-tives, or values or against the grainof common practice, it will be diffi-cult if not impossible to obtain sup-port for that idea. People have tosee the potential benefits of an idearight away, and one way to helpthem do so is to align your ideawith what they want to achieve.What is your (and your groups)position in the organizations hier-archy? To make this assessment,youll need to go beyond the officialorganizational chart and becomeaware of the unwritten peckingorderthe informal power struc-

    ture, which is often very differentfrom the formal relationships shownon the organizational chart.Consider your organization. Doesthe salesforce drive the organiza-tions work, or is the finance groupor the marketing group the driver?Is production the driving force, or isit the number of grants the organiza-tion receives? What about innova-tion, research, and development?

    Are those functions at the heart ofthe organization? How are you andyour group positioned in relation tothe driving forces in your organiza-tion? Are you part of them, or doyou work outside those functions?This and similar kinds of relation-ships determine the true hierarchy inyour organization.

    For example, if youre a groupdirector in the manufacturing seg-ment of an organization and youhave an idea for improving a pro-duction process, you may realizethat you need support from thefinance group to procure the newequipment your improvement

    requires. You may also know thatfinancials drive many of the organi-zations decisions. Therefore in thetrue hierarchy, even though on theorganizational chart you have thesame title as a group director infinance, you are really not at thesame level as that director. This isthe kind of relationship you need toassess and consider. You want todetermine where you and yourgroup are positioned in the structurethat reflects how things actuallywork in the organization.

    How much support do you needfrom key people in key groups?Among the groups you have identi-fied as important in the organiza-tions true hierarchy will be peoplewho must to some degree endorseyour idea. You will need to deter-mine those degrees of support. Fromsome group leaders you will needonly an OK or a mutual understand-ing of your idea. From other groupleaders you may need a willingnessto help, and you may want to mea-sure the degree to which they can behelpful and the kind of help theycan provide. For example, you maywant some groups to shareresources and others to providecommunication support.

    To increase your chances of suc-cess in getting your idea adopted,its important that you make yourneeds clear to each crucial group.

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    Harold Scharlatt is a senior

    enterprise associate at CCL.

    He holds an M.A. degree

    from the State University of

    New York and an advanced

    certificate in administration

    and supervision from Oxford


    A B O U T T H E A U T H O R

    If your idea goes

    against any of the

    organizations written

    or unwritten goals,

    objectives, or values or

    against the grain of

    common practice, it

    will be difficult if not

    impossible to obtain

    support for that idea.

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  • Whats more, you need to makeyour solicitation for support and thelevel of support you expect espe-cially clear to the leaders in thesegroups. If you need official approvalfrom any of these groups or theirleaders, you may need to make amore formal appeal than you wouldmake if you needed only tacitapproval.

    What resources are needed? Justabout any new idea requiresresources to implement. Theresource most needed is oftenmoney, but additional resources mayinclude staff, equipment, access toexpertise, administrative support,and storage. Organizations typically

    align their resources with an eyetoward achieving their goals, andaccommodating a new idea mayrequire shifting the existing align-ment.

    Also consider which other indi-viduals or groups in the organiza-tion may be competing for the sameresources needed to implement youridea. Compare your idea with theirwork. Think about how to integratethe two so that resources can beshared for mutual benefit.

    How committed is your group toyour idea? Before you try to sell anew idea to other parts of the organ-

    ization, make sure that people inyour own group support it.Otherwise, somebody in your groupcould sabotage your idea with asimple remark in the hall. Ask forinput and get your groups supportbefore talking to others in theorganization about your idea. If thepeople in your own group dontfully support it, your chances ofgarnering external support are dra-matically reduced.

    Who in other parts of the organiza-tion may feel threatened by youridea? Despite all the talk aboutflatter organizational structures with more permeable internalboundaries, territorial conflict stillexists in organizations. When youintroduce an idea, some groups orindividuals may feel that youretreading on their turf and becomedefensive. That creates an obstacleto getting your idea accepted andimplemented.

    For example, if youre the leaderof a product group with an idea formarketing a product and you intro-duce the idea to the marketinggroup leader, she may agree that itsa great idea. Then she may add,But thats really our job.

    Oh, good, you say. So youregoing to work on it?

    And she replies: No, were notgoing to work on it. Weve got otherpriorities right now.

    So you say: I understand. Ithink my group can get to work onit.

    She responds: No, its our job.Its really our responsibility.

    She is asking you not to imple-ment the idea because its hergroups responsibility, yet she is notwilling to have her group takeaction. She feels that youre tread-ing on her groups territory, and sheis defending that territory.

    What is the potential for misinter-pretation? New ideas are often metwith skepticism. Dont be surprised

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    if people think youre introducingyour idea for selfish reasons, suchas getting more authority or power.One way to mitigate such reactionsis to talk to people who are notfamiliar with your idea to see if theythink theres any way the idea mightbe misinterpreted. Be direct. Afterexplaining your idea and what youwant to do with it, simply ask, Doyou think anyone could misinterpretmy good intentions here?Depending on the answers you get,you might need to think about waysto prevent specific misinterpreta-tions. Above all, you want to pres-ent your idea as something that willhelp everybody in the organizationin the long run.

    TACTICAL OPTIONSAfter you have scanned the organi-zation and established where youcan find support and where youhave to move carefully to avoidobstacles, you can start to work onactually communicating and imple-menting your idea. Many of the tac-tics for doing so fall under theumbrella of influencing others.Some of these tactics draw on yourskill at building and maintainingrelationships and your ability to cre-ate networks of support, bolsteryour position with allies, and createa reasoned and engaging argumentfor implementing your idea.

    The more tactics you have todraw on, the more precise and effec-tive action you can take in differentsituations. Start by building as manyoptions into your tactical repertoireas you can so that when one tacticdoesnt work or isnt available in aspecific circumstance, you can drawon another and keep moving for-ward.

    Here are some tactics you canuse to sell your idea:

    Draw attention to the need oropportunity People will support


    Before you try to sell a

    new idea to other parts

    of the organization,

    make sure that people

    in your own group

    support it.

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  • your idea only when they realizethat the idea is as important to themas it is to you. One way you caninfluence their view is to drawattention to the need for the idea byclearly describing the problem theidea is designed to remedy.

    Another way to influence peopleis to draw attention to an opportu-nity. As with defining a problem,you must make it clear that there isroom for improvement. For exam-ple, a function in your organizationmay operate relatively well, but youcan point to options and opportuni-ties that will increase productivityor streamline operations enough tomake implementing your ideaworthwhile.

    Create a favorable perception ofyour idea This doesnt means put-ting a spin on your idea or present-ing it in a way that isnt fullyauthentic. An honest, positive pres-entation highlights the reasons youthink your idea will work and whyit is valuable. You should anticipateobjections and refine your idea so itanswers those objections.

    Point out that you recognize thatyour idea isnt perfect. Every ideahas flaws; no one can anticipateevery situation or outcome. But byrecognizing the flaws and acknowl-edging objections, you can buildsupport for your idea. You can comeacross as looking for suggestionsfrom others to overcome the minorflaws that might detract from yourgood idea. You thus create jointownership of the idea, whichincreases your base of support.

    Leverage the support you havegiven to others in the past Callingin favors may sound merely transac-tional: I scratched your back, nowyou scratch mine. But effectivelyselling an idea requires you to thinkmore broadly than just quid proquo. Think about the colleagues andpeers you have supported in thepast. Was your support needed

    because you had some resource theyneeded to successfully complete aproject? If they had a resource gapand you were able to fill it, then youcould look on their supporting youin return as creating a kind of mutu-al support that balances resourcesfor the benefit of the organization,rather than as a simple trade.

    Approach your request with asense of negotiating a win-win sce-nario. Just as you aligned yourresources with others projects inthe past, now you are seeking toalign their resources with your proj-ect. Assuming that your past effortshelped others accomplish theirtasks, its reasonable to assume thatthey will be open to helping yousucceed as well, especially if youhave done a good job of sharinginformation and promoting youridea as an opportunity or solutionthat needs the support of others inorder to be realized.

    Heres an approach you mightuse: If you can help me get thisproject done, I think we can worktogether on another project that ismore in line with what your groupneeds to accomplish. Together, wecan do more than we can do on ourown. Be open to options and sug-gestions, and keep encouraging acollaborative effort. Start with your most likely alliesOne common perception is that ifyou can sell an idea to your tough-est audience, you can sell it to any-one. That view has some merit, butits risky. Youll be more effectiveand have a better chance of successif you marshal support early. Startwith the people who you believewill be the most enthusiastic aboutyour idea. This tactic does two goodthings. First, if you have difficultyselling your idea to your most likelyallies, youll learn that your ideaneeds some work. Second, if yousucceed in selling your idea to oth-ers, they become allies, and you canuse that group of allies as evidence

    that youre building consensus.People find it easier to support ideasthat others already support.

    Consider possible adjustmentsBefore you begin presenting youridea to others, think through somealternatives and adaptations you canmake if you encounter resistance.What is your backup position? Howfar can you drop your expectations?Its important to understand where

    your own line of compromise liesand where you can or cant adaptwithout reducing your ideas poten-tial effectiveness.

    Its also important to consider theform of your presentation, so thatyou dont prompt an immediate neg-ative response. People may react toyour style of presentation beforereacting to your idea, and you maylose any chance of gaining theirsupport.

    Adjust your idea and your pres-entation proactively, not just inreaction to others. Seek feedback onboth from your allies or from atrusted colleague who can serve as asounding board and play devilsadvocate.

    Time it right Only you can decidethe best time to introduce your idea.Perhaps the groups in your organi-zation are most open to new ideas at

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    The more tactics you

    have to draw on, the

    more precise and

    effective action you can

    take in different


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  • the end of a quarter, when they aremaking intermediate plans. If theorganization has an annual strategy-making process, maybe you shouldtime the introduction of your idea tothat cycle.

    Timing depends largely on theorganizational climate and whetheryour organization sets out plans atspecific times or is in a continualstrategy-making mind-set. You needto determine how and when peopleare most willing to listen to a newideathe situation may be different

    for every organization and for itsgroups.

    You can increase your chances ofsuccess by aligning your idea withother events and ideas in the organi-zation. This requires research onyour part. Find out what othergroups are doing. Ask yourselfwhether your idea can increase theirchances of success or benefit theoutcome of their projects. On alarger scale, familiarize yourselfwith your organizations strategyand its short-term, intermediate, and

    long-term goals. If everyone in theorganization is pursuing a specificgoal, will your idea make that goaleasier to achieve? If you attach youridea to current initiatives thatalready have organizational andindividual support, you may find iteasier to get endorsements andresources.

    TREAD CAREFULLYThe following tactics can be veryeffective in selling an idea to yourorganization, but if taken too farthey can be perceived as under-handed or sneaky. Its important touse them in an ethical way.

    Work on a small scale to buildmomentum You may be able to testyour idea without introducing itfully into the organization.

    A small-scale implementation ofyour idea will have a smaller impacton the organization if the ideadoesnt work out as planned. If youcan test your idea in a few differentparts of the organization or with afew different vendors, clients, orcustomers, you can create a recordof accomplishment that you can useto solicit broader support. Testingmay also reveal flaws in your ideathat you can correct and possiblerefinements that might make youridea more appealing to others.

    Build in room to negotiate You mayalready know that your organizationwill, for example, cut 10 percent offany resources you request. If youknow that youre going to have tonegotiate, you may need to providea high estimate of the amount oftime and other resources youllneed. Then you can be talked down

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    a bit. What you dont want to do isto overstate your objectives orexpectations. They have to be clear.

    Explain the potential rewards andconsequences People tend to dowhat they get rewarded for. Theymay be thinking, or even saying,Whats in it for me? You canexplain the potential rewardsforindividuals, groups, and the organi-zationof buying into and imple-menting your idea. You can alsoexplain the potential negative conse-quences should your idea not besupported and not come to fruition.

    BE PREPAREDSelling an idea to your organizationinvolves two actions. First, you haveto assess how your organizationsclimate and its methods of doingthings will affect the way peoplerespond to your idea, the degree towhich people will support that idea,and what resources you are likely togain for implementing that idea.Second, you need to decide whichtactical approaches you will use toget your idea heard, supported,endorsed, and enacted. The tacticsyou choose will depend largely onhow you adapt your approach fordifferent situations and for differentconstituencies in the organization.

    A well-reasoned and engagingimplementation plan is essential formaking the most of any idea. Butbefore the implementation come theselling and the gathering of support.Assessing the environment in whichyour idea will be launched and consid-ering the ways in which you canincrease your ideas chances of notonly surviving but thriving will prepareyou for a successful campaign.


    Align your idea with

    other events and ideas

    in the organization. This

    requires research on

    your part. Find out what

    other groups are doing.

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