One of the principal challenges any innovator faces is persuading others of the value of an idea. It is a frequent source of frustration and angst, and an absolutely essential innovation skill. Without the ability to sell our ideas, we are unlikely to get any assistance from colleagues, permission from the boss or fellow decision makers, or any financial support. Perhaps most crucially, if we can’t persuade someone of the value of our idea, we are unlikely to have any customers or other adopters…hence no revenue or other value-creation.
In my last post The Trouble With Facts in Innovation I discussed the problem of using what we already know, to advocate for new ideas. Facts are about where we’ve been, not where we’re going. Innovation is inherently forward looking. It’s about imagining and creating things that do not yet exist, and therefore things that may not have (and arguably cannot have) facts to support them. The CEO of a British maker of prediction software was onto this problem when he told Time magazine, “If you know something to be true, it’s already history.”
Relying on facts may not only fail to enhance our arguments for a new product, service or approach; it may undermine our credibility. It’s just too easy for critics to expose the logical gap that creates. Here’s a simple template for thinking through how to pitch your ideas to others. Broadly speaking, you want to apply and interpret facts to lay a logical foundation that’s based on the current realities. Yet, talk in terms of objectives and desirable outcomes to support a proposed course of action.
1) Take the known facts head on. Don’t ignore or gloss over current realities. Acknowledge the challenges that must be faced. This is of course an important self-discipline. It’s also a way to build credibility with others. They need to feel that you’re living in the same world they live in, not some alternative reality.
2) Reinterpret and reframe those facts by rethinking how to make sense of that data, offering alternative explanations that point to potential new solutions, discoveries and insights. This may include noting some of the things that may be uncertain, or challenging assumptions that are not supported by the facts.
3) Offer your idea as a response to the (re)interpretation you’ve given, and a way of achieving a more desirable future. Hopefully, you’ve imagined and considered more than one possible solution. So you should explain why you’ve chosen this particular option over others.
4) Evaluate your own idea, exploring things like its risks, implications, cost, impact and likelihood of success. Your credibility may depend on how well you can articulate and address the minuses as well as the pluses.
5) Acknowledge that there are uncertainties and risks, and discuss how you intend to handle them. Look for low risk ways to test ideas, get answers to key questions, resolve disputes and address criticisms. Explain why the potential payoff is worth facing those uncertainties.
6) Sixth, make buy-in as easy and low risk as possible. Seek a commitment to move forward in some feasible way, perhaps taking some initial incremental steps rather than asking for the immediate total adoption of your suggestion. Ideally, you want to get folks invested in your idea in at least some small way, whether that’s financial, personal or emotional. Once they’ve made that initial investment, they’re more likely to be supportive going forward.
When done well, this progression should describe how to move from a current situation that is no longer acceptable, to a more desirable future state. This exact sequence may vary. For example, it may be more compelling to first articulate an appealing future, and then compare that to a troubling present. That future outcome must be compelling enough to overcome the inevitable fears and uncertainties that any new idea brings.
Finally, keep in mind that pushing new ideas is like scoring in soccer. It sometime takes a lot of shots on goal to get one good score.
Dennis Stauffer is the award winning author of Thinking Clockwise, A Field Guide for the Innovative Leader and the Innovator Mindset blog. He’s the founder of Insight Fusion, working with individuals, teams and organizations to boost their capacity to innovate.