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By Lois Kelly and Carmen Medina, authors of Rebels at Work

“There’s no money in the budget for that” is the most common management response to new ideas. The more creative or risky the idea, the quicker our bosses’ “Sorry, no budget” reflexes.

We walk away thinking, “Well there’s no sense on pushing that idea forward. There’s no money to fund it.”

But here’s an important truth: money is rarely the real reason our ideas get shot down. If you push just a little, you’re likely to hear something very different.

Here are the real reasons bosses say no, and how to get around them.

1. “It’s just not that important.”

When an idea helps an organization accomplish something that’s important and valued, that idea gets funded and approved. Many very good ideas get rejected because they don’t support what the organization most cares about. So show how your proposal supports what’s most valued.

Consider: Do you actually know what’s most important and valued in your company? What’s appearing on the agendas of management meetings? What new buzz words keep creeping into conversations? Do this homework before you start socializing your idea. We’ve seen funds appear almost magically when an idea addresses an issue deeply important and relevant.

2.  “I can’t understand what the ‘it’ is.”

Sometimes new concepts are so foreign that people just can’t figure out what we’re talking about. As the idea creators we easily “get” the concept, and make the mistake of thinking that other people will as instinctively understand what it is and how it benefits the organization.

Consider:  Use an analogy to give people a familiar context to understand your idea.  When Bill Taylor and Alan Webber had the idea for Fast Company, they pitched it as putting Harvard Business Review and Rolling Stone in a blender and pressing the on switch.   What is your idea like – and how is it different?

3. “The timing doesn’t work.”

Your boss may love your idea and say no because the timing doesn’t fit with planning cycles.  If you start lobbying for an idea in November but plans and budgets are finalized in September, you’re out of luck for a while.

Consider:  Learn how decisions get made and the timing of decisions and budget planning.  Work within the system.

4. “Where are the best practices?”

Innovative concepts are just that – innovative and emerging. They haven’t been done before and involve risk and complexity.  Alas, many people are extremely uncomfortable approving new ideas unless they can be backed up by best practices or controlled experiments. Without having some sense of certainty, people reject the idea. It’s just too risky.

Consider: If you can find supporting case studies or best practices, use them.  If not, consider using the Cynefin Framework to engage in a conversation about the context of your organization (or the customer environment) and the implications of that context for making decisions. For example, if people agree the operating environment is becoming more complex, they are more likely to support novel approaches and acknowledge uncertainty.

5. “I don’t like the idea.”

There will be times when your boss just dislikes your idea for all kinds of rational and irrational reasons, and doesn’t know how to tell you. So he asks you to do more research, puts off your meetings, and says things like, “Let’s keep this on the back burner.”  The tough thing about this stall tactic is that you keep your hopes up and become more and more frustrated.  It’s the equivalent of the movie, “He’s Just Not That Into You.”

Consider: if you think your boss is having a hard time giving you frank feedback, help her by asking questions like, “On a scale of one to 10, one being highly unlikely and 10 being very likely, how likely is it that this idea will get approved and funded in the next year?” (Ratings take the emotion out of discussions and give you useful data about intent.)  Or say, “It looks like you don’t like this idea and you’d like to be able to tell me that. It would help me if you’d say it directly.”

6. “I love the way things are.”

Some people just love the way things are and want to preserve what they think is working. They’re not so much opposed to your idea as they are in love with the status quo.

Consider:  If you suspect your boss is in love with what exists, ask him, “Where do you see value in changing how we operate today? In what ways do you think this new idea could make us more effective?”  If he thinks everything is going well and sees little value to changing, you have some important data. You can either build support around and below your boss to keep the idea alive or you can accept that he’s never going to budge and either drop the idea or go to work for an organization that values what you value.

Remember that most decisions are based more on emotion than logic. To get to “yes,” find out what people yearn to be able to achieve (their aspirations) and acknowledge the risks and how you’ll minimize them (their fears).  Aspirations and fears are a common paradox.  Opportunities lie in the contradictions.

Lastly, manage your own energy and reputation. If the boss hates your idea and sees absolutely no value in pursuing it, you might not want to pursue it. At least not in his organization.

For more on this topic, check out chapter four of Rebels at Work in Safari


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