One of the many tasks intrapreneurs face is getting approval, funding and resources for their ideas. Of course getting organizational support is just a small part of the challenge of turning ideas into realities, but it is necessary and sometimes difficult step. Here a few tricks of the trade that make it easier.
- Ask for advice before you ask for resources
- Express gratitude
- This doesn’t matter; it’s only a test
- Hear objections as efforts to help
- Listen, test their assumptions, give thanks and morph your idea
- A coalition of sponsors
- It’s the outside of the idea the corporate immune system reacts to
- Rename and press on
- Restarting the clock
- Focus on the risk of not doing it.
- Play to the hummers
- Chaldini’s 6 Principles of Pursuasion
In this blog post I will only address the first, but will follow rapidly with the others in subsequent blogs.
Ask for Advice Before You Ask for Resources
Asking for what you need
Suppose you go to your boss and say, “I have this great idea.” You describe what it is in glowing terms and tell her how great it is going to be once it is implemented. Then as an extreme example of this approach you ask, “Can you give me a budget of $300,000 and a headcount of two for the year?”
There is a brief pause in the conversation. What do you suppose is going on in your boss’s mind?
Although you have described the idea compellingly, she has no way of judging whether your idea is good or bad. Opposing that uncertainty, she does know that she had plans for your work that relates to what she is immediately held accountable for. She does know that your absence on that task would somewhat reduce her chances of delivering what she has promised. And she does know that she does not have a spare $300,000 in her budget or a spare headcount of two more people.
The safest and most sensible thing for her to do is to say “no,” or the polite equivalent of “no” such as “not now” or I’ll think about it.” So she does.
As you walk away you may be thinking about what happened and reassure yourself, “At least I got her thinking about it.” But what is she actually thinking? At least subconsiously she is considering two possibilities:
- Your idea is actually a great idea, she said “no” to it, in which case she made a bad decision and she is a bad manager.
- Your idea is a bad idea, she said “no” to it, in which case she saved the company money and is a good manager.
Which will way of seeing the situation appeals the deep motivational structure of her emotional brain? She still does not know how to judge the financial value your idea, but she is quite sure she prefers to be a good rather than a bad manager. She chooses to see herself as good manager and therefore, so it all fits together, your idea is bad. That is not the result you wanted, so let’s try a different approach.
Asking for advice first
“Hi Susan, I have an idea for a new widget, but I don’t understand the market for it. Could you recommend someone in marketing who could answer a few quick questions to see if this thing could possibly work?”
What is she likely to do? You are not asking much or asking her to make a decision about your idea. It’s easy, she says, “Daniel Isagawa knows a lot about the widget market. He can help you.”
Now the truth is she has spend a tiny bit of Daniel’s time and her social capital on your idea. A similar logic holds:
- Your idea is a good idea and she has committed a small amount of corporate resources to it, so she is a good manager. Or
- Your idea is a bad idea, so she has wasted Daniel’s time and she is a bad manager.
Again she chooses “good manager,” so your idea becomes a bit better in her estimation. And this is in the direction of the movement you wanted, so asking for advice was a good strategy.
This psychological principle behind this surprising impact on decisions is called cognitive dissonance. We don’t like dissonance in our mind so we arrange our beliefs to reduce any dissonance by seeing things and acting in a way that all the ideas fit together comfortably. If saying “no” to an idea that might be good creates a dissonance with your belief that you are a good manager, you change your evaluation of the idea to reduce the dissonance. So the idea becomes bad. And vice versa.
From a practical point of view this leads to a simple rule: When trying to sell an idea, don’t ask for anything that causes important stakeholders to say “no” to it. Always ask for something to which they will say “yes.” And what is the one thing that people are almost always willing to give? Advice! So that is the place to start.
Later on, when the idea has achieved goodness in their minds though their small acts of support, you can ask for more. Again cognitive dissonance is on your side. They feel good about supporting it and don’t want to admit that they were wrong in supporting it earlier. So they commit more.
This is not to say that they are in any way unworthy of their leadership positions. It’s just how the human mind works underneath the veneer of rationality. Use this powerful tool for good, not for evil.
This is the first of a series of posts on how to sell your ideas.
Coming Next: Express Gratitude
In my last blog entry, How to Sell Your Ideas, I showed how asking for advice rather than resources was a powerful first step in selling a person whose support or resources you need. When people help you and your idea, even with a little bit of help like giving you advice, they become a little bit more receptive to your idea. In this post we take it a bit further by discussing what to can do to amplify the effect after you get advice.
Let’s say the person whose support you need is Brenda. Last week you told her that you needed help from someone in marketing. She introduced you to Bill.
So you go to Bill, who helps you better understand what customer’s might need from the new service you propose. As you talk to him, you see the opportunity to make a small improvement of your messaging and your business model. You go back to Brenda and tell her how Bill contributed to your idea of how to go to market. You explain the mistakes you can now avoid. You give genuine thanks.
What happens to Brenda’s attitude toward you and your idea? Before when she gave you a little help it made her friendlier to your idea. Now it turns out the help she gave was bigger than she had thought. Because she helped it more, she likes your idea more. More genuine gratitude for the advice she gave makes her opinion of your idea more positive. You have moved forward again.
Gratitude can even help convert someone who is dissing your idea. Suppose you are part of a team meets once a week. Every time your idea comes up, George criticizes it harshly. It is not only getting under your skin, it is also slowing you down by causing others to have less faith in you and your idea.
Here is what to do. Listen carefully to George. Listen to his criticisms with the goal of finding, among the issues he’s identifying, ones that you believe would be worth checking out. Perhaps you are you are not ready to see his criticism as help during the meeting, so just don’t get into a fight. Later, search for issues he raised that you think are interesting and do a little research on them.
If you research with an open mind, to your surprise you will probably find that one of more of the issues that George raised turn out to be legitimate concerns and suggest some changes in your plan.
In the next week’s meeting you thank George, “Thank you for raising that issue last week. I did some research and what I learned was important. You have helped me avoid a significant mistake. Thank you.”
Consciously or unconsciously, the fact that George has helped your idea feels good and makes his a bit more open to it. He moves toward a more neutral position. Keep accepting his help and he will probably end up on your side.
But here I have to give a big warning: GRATITUDE ONLY WORKS IF IT IS GENUINE.
If you pretend to be grateful but aren’t, it will probably make things worse. Nobody likes being BSed. And human beings, at least at the subconscious level, have pretty good BS detectors.
To apply gratitude effectively you have to feel it. To feel gratitude when your cherished idea, is being criticized is not necessarily easy. I like to say it requires emotional weight lifting. It’s about getting your ego out of the way, not defending yourself and instead seeing the good in others. Listen as generously as you can. Enjoy checking out the issues raised. Learn from them. Be glad you did. Then you can be genuinely thankful.
There is a bonus in gratitude: feeling gratitude and being happy are almost the same thing, especially when gratitude includes being grateful for the opportunities you get to be of service to others.
Some folks increase their overall capacity to feel and express gratitude by at the end of the day writing down a couple of things they are grateful for. But whether you like that idea or not, remember to express genuine gratitude for criticisms so you can turn what feel like attacks into help. As they say, it takes two to fight. Turn your enemies into friends.
The series so far:
How to Sell Your Ideas
Coming next: Avoid Triggering the Organizational Immune System
An intrapreneur in the grip of an idea often sees the grand potential of it in the many different innovations it makes possible. You are thrilled by the overall significance of it and the huge difference the idea and its children can make for the company. In selling it, you are tempted to say something that implies, “This will change everything.” You are tempted to tell everyone about it and the massive benefits that will come from it.
That is exactly the wrong message.
When a manager hears this, at some level it scares the heck out of them. They don’t want everything changed. They have a good job they want to keep. They have deliverables and don’t want resources pulled away from what they are being held accountable for. And they don’t want any big failures or turf wars that can be traced to them. They like things more or less the way they are, only a bit better.
For most managers, instead of saying how big your idea is, instead of talking about the massive changes it will produce, make it sound small and ordinary. Show how it fits right in with what is already going on and is already expected of them. If possible, position your idea as an extension of what is already going on.
The organizational immune system exists to stamp out ideas that are too different. Even if your idea is actually quite different, and we hope it is, don’t make it sound very different from what is already going on. It is just a new way of supporting an existing strategy or strategic intent.
This section of my blog series will continue next Monday with more on how to avoid triggering the organizational immune system.
Next Monday’s post will be on what I call, “It’s Only a Test” strategy.
Posts in this Series:
How to Sell Your Ideas
One way to make approving your idea easier is to reduce the consequences of the decision you are asking them to make. A manager confronted with a new idea they are not sure about has an easy out if they ask for more information before making the decision.
Play along with that tendency.
Position what you want to do as gathering more information before the important decision has to be made, not as asking permission to begin the roll out of the idea.
After asking for advice, a gentle next step is to ask for permission to do a feasibility study. After that, when you want to run a real market test, say, “It is only a test. The real decision comes later.” Once your innovation is delivering value to customers (internal or external) who are willing to pay, the decision to scale-up the test and continue next generation development becomes much less scary.
When Michael Phillips wanted to sell certificates of deposit to ordinary people rather than corporate treasurers, for whom CDs were originally designed, he told the stakeholders in operations, legal and marketing, “This is only a test.”
For example, he told the folks in operations, “This is only a market test. If the test reveals that people will actually buy them, then you can put the time and energy into designing operating systems to process them at scale. You don’t need to do anything but wait for the test results. There is no reason for a big operations design project if no one will buy them. For right now we can use this simple procedure (which he designed himself) for the test.” That was easy to say yes to.
Now Michael, who was on the wilder side of the intrapreneurship spectrum, then went out and sold forty million dollars of certificates of deposit in the three-month test. That put some pressure on his sponsor who had to protect Michael from the outrage that followed, but by then the product was so profitable that there was no turning back. For ordinary intrapreneurs it is probably better that when you say you are going to do a test, you keep it small.
The next step after a test is a pilot program – an extended test, and so it goes, one small step at a time so it never seems that new, never seems that different from business as usual.
Next Monday’s post in the series will be on “Framing Ideas So they Get Support.“
Posts in this Series:
How to Sell Your Ideas
Avoid Triggering the Organizational Immune System
Watanabe San, an engineer at NEC who had been assigned to selling microcomputers, was getting nowhere. This was several years before the first IBM PC and people could not imagine what microprocessors were for. To solve this problem he built a small computer to demonstrate an example of what microprocessors could do.
His boss was not pleased, because he thought sales were driven by number of sales calls that you make. Nonetheless, he let Watanabe San present the idea to NEC’s computer division. They laughed. The computers they were building filled a room. In their minds, the little computer was at best a toy.
Watanabe San did not give up. He went to the household products group and showed them what he had. He imagined new hobby clubs of engineers, who would play with the computer, build extensions to it and eventually design products that used the microprocessors that NEC had created. He was not well received in household products. This was not the kind of market they knew anything about.
At this point his boss lost patience. “You engineers are all the same,” he said. “You no sooner are given a sales job than you try to turn it into an engineering one. Stop working on the computer and go out and make sales calls.”
At this point Watanabe San did something unexpected. He took apart the computer, put it in a bag, put in instructions on how to re-assemble it, took out a magic marker and wrote “Sales Tool” on the outside of the bag. He went back and showed it to his boss. The result may surprise you. His boss was quite pleased, “Finally you are really working on selling microprocessors.”
Watanabe San began selling the computer in a bag and people bought them. He was surprised that the customers ranged from engineers to flight attendants and people from all walks of life. Someone added the interface for a screen, which the computer in a bag lacked. Someone else added a keyboard. The little computers grew more powerful and more useful. Sales grew. NEC became the largest manufacturer of PCs in Japan.
What this story illustrates is a very important fact: Like the human immune system, which responds to what is on the outside of a cell not the DNA inside, the corporate immune system responds to the outside of an idea, not to the essence on the inside. The inside of the idea was still a tiny computer. The outside as seen by his boss changed from a useless tiny computer to a tool for selling microprocessors, and that made it acceptable.
Positioning in marketing is about how you want the customer to see your offering. Getting the positioning right plays a major role in success. When seeking approval, and even in making sales to customers, intrapreneurs must pay attention to the power of the outside positioning of their idea. Later the internal essence matters to its usefulness and longevity in the market, but much less to whether it will be approved.
Spend time designing the outside of your idea so it does not threaten the corporate immune system and has an appeal to those whose support you need. The name and the elevator pitch may be all most deciders hear. Craft and test them carefully.
Rename and Press On
And when all else fails and your idea appears to have been definitively killed, rename and press on. This, in essence is what Watanabe San did. He renamed his computer project. A new name very often disguises the continuity of the effort and gives you a new start.
Next Monday we will post on a strategy called, “Restarting the Clock.“
Posts in this Series:
How to Sell Your Ideas
Avoid Triggering the Organizational Immune System
It’s Only a Test