I’ve had quite a few ideas at Amex. Stupidly, I would explain my idea in 5 minutes to my boss, only to have it quickly shot down, cursing the company for its failure to accept change and appreciate innovation. I learned that selling an idea is incredibly difficult–especially in a slow-moving, large corporation.
Take it Slow
Do not go straight to your boss with your idea. This is because he or she, as well as your co-workers, will ask themselves the following three questions when they hear your idea:
1. Is it going to be successful?
2. Is it worth doing?
3. Is this person able to champion the project?
You need each answer to be a resounding “yes.” This will not occur by casually explaining your idea. People will discount your idea because getting a “yes” to the above questions is difficult–the default and expectation is “no.” How do you get to “yes?”
Step 1: Build your Reputation as a Champion
You may have a great idea, but the company does not think that you can handle it. If you have a reputation of getting things done, you’re much more likely to capture the confidence of others. People will not embrace your idea and run with it–it’s your vision and it needs to be led by you. Start by doing small things: leading a taskforce, organizing lunch, volunteering for a project.
Step 2: Talk to Others
Innovation is realized through teams–not through individuals. You need to get several stakeholders on-board before pitching your idea to superiors. This will likely include legal, brand, operations, etc. Each person will pick apart your idea; but once you have their stamp of approval, selling your idea to upper-management will be much easier.
Step 3: Without the Idea, We’re Doomed
Create a sense of urgency by making it clear that action must be taken. Once people understand the current crisis, they are much more likely to accept your idea. Do this before you explain the specifics of the idea.
Step 4: Guaranteeing Success
You cannot prove that your idea will work. What you can do is present your idea with confidence, reinforcing your recommendation as a “sure thing.” You need to go through all of the necessary steps for your colleagues to believe that it will work. This includes, if necessary, running focus groups, analytics, ROI, etc.–whatever it takes.
Step 5: Pitch Idea to Your Boss
You have multiple stakeholders on-board by creating a sense of urgency and proven yourself a project champion with a strong reputation. Finally, when you sell your idea, the project is less risky and an endorsement would be a no-brainer. Each of the above questions is now a resounding “yes.” Again, create a sense of urgency and focus on the likely success of the project.
Naturally, this takes much more time than my previous approach. But the results are superior and you are improving your reputation as leader.