Selling Your Bright Idea: the Realities of Innovation

Aug 31, 2011
18 Min Read

Your boss has been harping for months on the idea that everyone needs to be more innovative. If the company can’t be more innovative, you’re told, it can’t compete.

Why? Authors of “The Innovator’s Dilemma” say that not only are innovative companies given higher valuations in the stock market, but investors are drawn to companies they believe will come up with new ideas and generate lots of new revenue. Companies that are seen as going along with the status quo and protecting an existing market can quickly fall behind.

The bottom line, then, is that if your company can’t compete, your job may be threatened. And the last thing you want is to join the lines of the unemployed.

So you put on your thinking cap. Innovate, you tell yourself. Think. What’s a creative idea? Finally, you land on what you consider to be a fairly brilliant idea, and are juiced the next morning when you go into the boss’ office to present it.

Ten minutes later you’re sitting back at your desk, dumbfounded that your idea was so quickly shot down. You’re stunned. You’re depressed. You’re angry. You’re also clueless as to what went wrong, other than your boss must be an idiot.

OK, well maybe your boss isn’t an idiot, but what did go wrong?

The list of why ideas don’t see the light of day can be endless, say leadership and management experts. There are those who will try to sabotage your efforts just for the fun of it. There are company bigwigs who will talk a big game about innovation – but in reality have little stomach for making changes. Or, it could just be you’re lousy at selling your vision or it won’t make the company money or help it cut costs or become more efficient.

But the good news is that there are ways to make sure the next time you present a good idea, the boss is not only receptive, but so is everyone else – including those in the C-suite.

Preparing for Battle

Business school classes often focus on ideas. Which ones are good and result in success – and those so bad they have sunk companies like Enron. You learn that good ideas are the core to any company’s success and spend much of your education dutifully absorbing everything you need to know so that one day you can promote your own good ideas in a company and watch your career take off.

But no one warned you about the “evil meanies,” did they?

The “evil meanies,” explains Harvard University professor of leadership John Kotter, are the people who would love nothing more than to shoot down your good idea. Why? The reasons are legion, but they may include not liking you personally, having a deep aversion to any kind of change or, as Kotter puts it, simply because they are “insecure puppies.”

Whatever the reason, the meanies’ mission is to make sure your idea never goes anywhere, and they will use any tools at their disposal – from gossiping behind your back to outright confrontation – to torpedo it.

“The bad news is that there are an infinite number of things that can hold you back,” says Kotter, chief innovation officer for Kotter International. “But the good news is that there are ways to beat them that you haven’t been taught.”

It may seem silly to think you have to gird your loins like you’re going into battle just to talk about your new idea, but those in the business-world trenches say without such preparation, you’re toast.

“Companies are interested in talking about innovation, but they may just be paying it lip service,” says John Baldoni, a leadership development consultant. “You’ve got to realize a lot of people feel threatened by it. I’m not sure that companies are really interested in innovation, so much as they’re interested in saying the word.”

Diana Rouse, marketing director and developer of DiKat Designs, says she learned that lesson firsthand while working for different large multinational companies.

While at a Japanese-run company as an assistant manager of marketing, she promoted an idea about marketing new products directly in mall kiosks to customers, and her boss – whom she calls the “greatest mentor ever” – supported it and helped her bring it to fruition. The company openly embraced innovative ideas, she says, which was not the same story when she worked at an American-led company.

In that environment, the company culture was more wary of change, and she says while her director and vice president gave her the green light on a new idea, she could never get it past the senior vice president, she says.

Kotter says that the “complacency” regarding innovation and new ideas in many companies is “unbelievable,” making it difficult for individuals to shepherd good ideas past their own department, let alone to top leaders.

“It’s like trying to move human beings that are mired in cement,” he says.

The key to success, experts say, is making sure that your idea is more than just innovative and creative. It must make bottom-line sense. It’s got to attract or retain customers, cut costs, generate money or show direct benefit to the company, they say.

“When you present an idea, it’s got to be tangible. Can they see it? Feel it?” Baldoni says. “Is it consistent with the mission and vision of the organization? You don’t suggest something that’s going to take the company in a different direction, because that’s not a call that you can make. That’s for the CEO.”

Ben Decker, president of Decker Communications, recommends that you begin with a strong business statement that immediately has the boss nodding her head in agreement, such as “we need to be more efficient as a team.” Once you have something on the table that the boss can’t dismiss or disagree with, then you hit with your main point, he says.

“To get buy-in, you’ve got to get them excited about the vision of where you’re going to go,” Decker says. “When you get people excited, then they’re going to be thinking: ‘Where can I get the budget for this?’”

Being a Good Shepherd

At times it will seem like you’re trying to move mountains by proposing a new idea, and your first inclination may be to throw up your hands and sulk in your cubicle. “Assume you’re going to be crushed,” Kotter advises. “But don’t get depressed and don’t panic.”

If you’ve got an innovative idea, here are some ways to get it heard and usher it to success:

  • Stay on the high road. While Kotter cautions “there are too many guns out there” to assume your idea won’t have pot shots taken at it, don’t let it make you cynical so that you start plotting ways to “get back” at those who cause problems. “Once you start plotting and trying to figure out how to manipulate the situation, then your credibility goes to hell,” he says.
  • Cover your bases. When you have an idea, put it in writing to safeguard your originality and make sure someone else doesn’t try to take credit, suggests Jodi Glickman, a former investment banker for Goldman Sachs and author of “Great on the Job.” “Even if you pitch it to the boss verbally, put it in an email to him on what date you pitched it and the outline of the idea,” she says.
  • Don’t go overboard. “Keep the idea simple, clear and common sense,” Kotter says. “People have so much going on in their heads and if it’s work on their part to try and get through your 97-point logic scheme, they’ll drop off,” Kotter says. Never, Decker adds, start with data. “The boss is short on time. Get to the point right away,” he says.
  • Consider partners. Glickman says that a “strategic champion” such as your boss can help you get the idea through difficult waters. “Tell the boss that you’d love for him to get involved, that you think it would benefit both of you,” she says. “Tell him that while you want to take the lead, you want him by your side.” Baldoni, author of “Lead Your Boss,” adds that gaining a champion for your idea not only helps the odds of success, but can also help you be seen as someone “of good leadership potential because you want what’s best for the team,” he says. “If you put yourself ahead of the idea, you look like nothing more than a self-promoter.
  • Get everyone in the room. While the old advice used to be that you tried to keep the naysayers out of the room when presenting your idea, Kotter advises you to do the opposite. “Sure, they’ll stir things up, but that’s good. When people are overloaded, the thing that gets their attention is drama. So, let them create drama and you’ll have won half the battle,” he says.
  • Decker adds that face-to-face interactions are more persuasive than using email or phone calls. Even using a webcam is a better option. “Get your face in front of people any way you can,” he suggests.

  • Prepare for arguments. In his book “Buy In” with Lorne A. Whitehead, Kotter outlines some of the 24 common attacks made by those who want to dismantle your ideas and how to respond. For example, if someone questions why change is even needed, you can respond with: “True. But surely we have all seen that those who fail to adapt eventually become extinct.” Ask someone you trust to play devil’s advocate – or come up with potential arguments yourself – so that you’re ready when someone launches an attack.
  • Time it right. Decker suggests you should not try to present something when everyone is rushing to meet a deadline. Trying to persuade your boss of a new idea while she’s running out the door for a meeting or glued to her computer screen is a recipe for disaster, he adds.“Schedule a meeting time with your boss, or try to even go out to lunch to discuss the idea,” Decker says. “If she’s in her office, try and get her to move away from her computer to a conference table or somewhere that she can focus on what you’re saying.”

Tapping your creativity

Of course, all this doesn’t mean a hill of beans if you can’t come up with an innovative idea in the first place.

Baldoni says that many people become stymied at the thought of innovation because they envision people like Apple’s Steve Jobs or Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and feel they can’t begin to meet such innovative heights.

“I think there’s a misconception about innovation,” Baldoni says. “I think people believe innovation means it has be big the ‘big I’ – like iPad or iPod. But so many innovations are the small ones that make incremental changes.”

It’s said that Albert Einstein often came up with ideas while shaving and many people swear taking a shower is the genesis for many creative ideas. In a recent Wall St. Journal article, “Dilbert” cartoonist Scott Adams says more people need to allow themselves to get bored in order to come up with innovative ideas.

“Experts say our brains need boredom so we can process thoughts and be creative,” he wrote. “I think they’re right. I’ve noticed that my best ideas always bubble up when the outside world fails in its primary job of frightening, wounding or entertaining me.”

For Glickman, she says her idea for the book “Great on the Job” came from watching her husband struggle to express himself at work.

“He’s so smart, yet he has trouble getting his ideas across. It was a light-bulb moment for me. I thought, ‘He can’t be the only one who doesn’t know how to express himself at work,’” she says. “I started thinking of all these people sitting in their cubes who were just S.O.L. because no one was there to help them know what to say. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention.”

Kotter says no matter how creative your idea or what problems it will help solve, you’ll have to be persistent and tough to help your ideas succeed.

“Anything that goes against the grain of the culture – that threatens the power of some department or someone else’s agenda – these invisible forces just kind of put rat poisoning on it,” he says. “It doesn’t mean these are bad people. It’s just a systemic thing that you need to be prepared for.”

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