You’ve got an idea for something that will improve your company’s bottom line or make it a better place to work. Nice going. Now for the hard part: How do you get people on board? How do you get funding? And what should you do if your idea doesn’t catch on?
What the Experts Say
In an ideal world, you’d come up with a genius new idea, tell your coworkers about it, and they’d immediately grasp its brilliance. Your boss would love it — and you! — and give you the resources you need to execute it. But that’s not reality. “It’s very hard to start a new initiative,” says John Butman, author of Breaking Out: How to Build Influence in a World of Competing Ideas. “It’s hard to get people to listen to your idea, to understand your idea, and to take action.” It may be difficult, but it’s also a vital skill to master. “Organizations need to keep changing, adapting, and innovating,” he says. “If they don’t, they stagnate and disappear.” But it’s not only the success of your company that’s at stake, says Susan Ashford, professor of management and organization at Michigan’s Ross School of Business. The ability to get new initiatives off the ground is also critical to your career. “You want to stand out, be visible, and get noticed as a leader,” she says. “And one of the ways to do this is by suggesting change ideas and implementing them.” Here are some pointers on how to get your idea moving.
Understand what’s motivating you
Before you breathe a word about your idea to a colleague, you must “think through your motives,” advises Butman. Ask yourself two questions: Why am I doing this? And what do I hope to accomplish? “You need to be able to express your motives” in a way that’s relatable and compelling to others, says Butman. “If the initiative seems like something that will only make you more successful, give you more exposure, or help you get a better job,” people will be skeptical. “It needs to benefit more than just you. Otherwise you’re going to run into trouble.”
Next, you need to pinpoint “your idea by making it as specific and small as it can possibly be,” Butman says. Pick precisely where you want to focus. If your new initiative involves, say, improving employee health, zero in on a particular goal, such as decreasing employees’ back pain or helping workers quit smoking. This exercise helps you “articulate the issue” you’re trying to address, and explain why your initiative “offers a possible solution,” says Ashford. Your colleagues are more likely to respond to specific initiatives rather than lofty, ambiguous goals.
Test the waters for your idea by making frequent use of what Butman refers to as “the cocktail party test.” When you find yourself with colleagues who might be interested in your initiative — whether they are close coworkers or people from an entirely different department or division — broach your idea in an informal way. “Present your idea by saying something like, ‘I’ve been thinking about this,’ or ‘What would you think of this,’” suggests Butman. Then, listen carefully to what people tell you. “You want questions. You want opposing viewpoints. You want pushback,” he says. The goal is to get to a place that no matter what anybody throws at you, you have a response. “Be sure to integrate their feedback into your game plan,” adds Ashford. “It’s a process of iteration and figuring out” what works.
Shape your story for the audience
Strategize how you’ll sell your initiative to different groups of colleagues and higher-ups. “Think about the language you’ll use for each of your audiences,” says Ashford. “You need to be seen as credible” when you’re talking about the financial implications of your initiative to the finance group, for instance. “You need to be able to talk about your idea succinctly and vividly and in a solutions-oriented way,” she adds. After all, “if you’re in an elevator with a decision-maker, you have only so much time to talk and you can’t very well shoot your PowerPoint slides up on the walls.” And bear in mind that “everyone has different learning styles,” says Butman. “You can’t expect to write a white paper and slap it on people’s desks.” For this reason, it’s important to vary your messaging with “something written, something spoken, something visual, and perhaps even tangible.” Butman recommends using a personal story to provide context. “Give people some idea of how you came up with the idea and why it’s meaningful to you as a human being.” Ashford concurs. Your presentation and pitch “should not be just a bunch of charts and graphs; it should have visual appeal,” she says.
Sell, sell, sell
Selling your idea is “not a singular event — it’s a campaign,” according to Ashford. “You need to do a lot of water cooler talk with different kinds of people.” Getting people to nod their heads in agreement is the first step, but to spark excitement and secure funding you need to inspire. “You want to trigger people’s emotions as well as their rational selves,” she says. Your aim is to “reduce resistance, bring people on board, and band allies and resources together.” You should be “closing the deal all the time,” adds Butman. “When you talk about it, you want people getting a little bit more of the idea and signing on to it a little bit more each time.” The goal, he says, is “internal virality” through “incremental agreement.” One word to the wise: When you’re trying to get others on board, don’t use the word new. “That’s the language of marketing,” says Butman. Colleagues need to be able to understand your idea in the context of the company’s past measures. “People often think their initiative has to be newer than new, but really it should be between 80-90% old — not radically new, but incrementally so.”
Propose a pilot
Ashford suggests proposing a trial run. It could be in the spirit of, “Let’s not worry about making this change wholesale — let’s try a pilot,” she says. “It reduces the perceived risk” of implementing something big and new. Pilots “give people a chance to test out” the idea. “And they can also create data that changes minds.” If you don’t have the power to allocate budget to a pilot, you need to sell harder to those who do. “Organizations have limited time, attention, and money,” says Ashford. Don’t lose sight of the fact that you’re constantly “competing against other people’s ideas” and other people’s doggedness. “If you and your allies really care about something, you need to sell it”; a pilot is often a cost effective way to do it.
Don’t get discouraged
Even when it seems you’re constantly running into roadblocks and your initiative may never get off the ground, don’t be deterred. “Sometimes an idea catches on right away, and sometimes it takes decades for it take hold,” says Butman. Persistence is key. But this does not mean persistence at all costs. Make sure you’re incorporating people’s feedback — both the good ideas and the potential sticking points — to your pitch. “Give up your desire for credit and control, and let people help you,” says Butman. It all gets back to your motives, says Ashford. “You need to care about the idea, not getting credit for the idea,” she says. “Think about what’s good for all not just what will let you shine. Trust the universe,” that you will get credit when it’s due.
Principles to Remember
- Make your idea as specific as possible and emphasize how it offers a clear solution to a targeted problem
- Adapt your sales pitch to the audience
- Suggest a pilot of your plan — trials are less risky and less expensive
- Insist on getting credit for the initiative — colleagues are less likely to support your idea if they sense you’re only in it for yourself
- Forget to solicit feedback from your colleagues
- Give up if your idea doesn’t immediately gain traction — change sometimes takes longer than you’d like
Case Study #1: Gather feedback and, if necessary, adjust your message
Beth Monaghan, the principal and co-founder of Ink House, the PR firm, knew that she needed to take drastic action after she heard about the behavior of some of her young workers. “I started hearing stories about employees competing with each other to work late into the night, to only eat lunch at their desks, and to check emails at all hours,” she says. “I realized that the problem of balance was becoming pronounced.”
After talking with her management team, Beth decided to announce two new initiatives at a staff meeting earlier this year: a company-wide no email rule between the hours of 7pm and 7am, and an unlimited vacation policy. She wanted to “set the expectation that employees should have a personal life.”
Employees were excited about the no email policy — in emergencies, they were allowed to call each other — but the unlimited vacation idea was a different story. “I was expecting cheers. I didn’t get that per se,” she says.
In order to get employees on board, she needed to sell the idea — but first, Beth needed to understand the source of people’s resistance. She “informally solicited feedback from employees in a ‘Hey, what did you think of that?’ way.” It turned out that some senior workers felt they deserved more vacation time than junior members of the team; others worried about employees that might take advantage of the rule.
Listening to those concerns caused Beth to adjust her message and her delivery. Beth had multiple conversations with employees where her goal was to “shift the way people thought about the time they spent at work.” She also had a large wall decal made that summarized the company’s values. The wall reads, among other things, “We don’t confuse process with progress.” And she held a staff meeting to assuage concerns about potential violations. “I said, ‘We hired smart, responsible people, and we trust you to use good judgment. If a certain employee takes advantage, we’ll deal with it.’”
For the most part, the policy has been a success. Beth admits she occasionally violates the no email rule. “I really try not to, though. It’s a good forcing function for me to get my work done during the day.”
Case Study #2: Use a relatable story to sell your idea; be patient with implementation
Julie Wittes Schlack, SVP of Innovation and Design at C Space, the global consulting company, knew that her company needed to streamline its client services, but she wasn’t sure how to get the idea off the ground. “We had all these codified processes that we were doing just because that’s the way we had always worked,” she says.
Then, one day, when Julie and C Space’s management team were at the company’s annual off-site retreat, they had a moment of clarity. During one of the sessions, they read a case study about a hotel chain that trimmed labor and production costs by ceasing to launder guest sheets every day. It was a story that Julie and her team immediately related to.
“It was the first hotel chain to ask, is [every day] linen changing necessary?” says Julie. “Linen changing became a great metaphor for our own cumbersome and obsolete processes.”
When Julie and the other senior leaders returned to the office, they worked to get other employees on board with the initiative to restructure client services — which accounted for three-fourths of the organization. They began by sharing the hotel story in meetings and in casual conversation. “People internalized the idea,” says Julie, adding that from then on employees used “Are we just linen changing?” to refer to processes that were not critical to the organization. “It was a shorthand and an easy way for people to talk about [the restructuring] as they were going about their daily tasks. Is this [process] necessary? Is this desirable?”
They had buy-in from employees, but when it came to implementing the initiative and eliminating certain processes, Julie received some pushback. To deal with it, Julie diagrammed the current system to show how many different people and departments were involved in each process. “It became easier for others to see where there was overhead and get aligned on [where we could cut back],” she says.
Restructuring client services was a six-month process, but ultimately her employees embraced the initiative because it saved them time and it saved the company money. “They saw what was necessary and what was adding value,” she says.