An idea on its own is not worth much. Just because you think you know a better way to do something, even if you’re right, no one is required to care.
Making great things happen at work is more than just being smart.
Good ideas succeed or fail on your ability to communicate them correctly to the people who have the power to make them happen. [ tweet this! ]
When you are navigating an organization, it pays to know who to talk to and how to reach them. This week, a simple guide to sending your ideas up the chain and actually making them stick. It takes three elements: the right people, the right time, and the right way.
If you have trouble getting people to listen to you or implement your ideas, this might be just what you need to take your ideas to the next level.
The right people
Every team has decision-makers, both formal and informal. You might know that you need the CMO to sign off on your new marketing idea, but have you thought about who the CMO always runs new ideas by or who they get approval from? And what about the person who, even though they’re not an executive, seems to be part of every big decision that gets made?
Do those people know about and like your idea, before the executive even hears it?
For most decisions, there will be a number of stakeholders you need to get buy-in from. Your manager, any other department leads who would be involved, maybe even your executive team. Before you do anything else, you should identify exactly who you need to get to sign off on your idea. Who are the key stakeholders? Why do they matter? Who is least likely to be on board? Who is most likely?
From there, think about how each of these people functions in the organization and what your relationship to them is.
Your relationship with each of these people matters, and will influence how receptive they are to your ideas. You have the power to influence anyone in your organization, even if you’re relatively low-ranking in the company.
This means you should actually start working on these relationships before you ever need to pitch them an idea. If you don’t yet have relationships with the biggest influencers and decision-makers in your organization, that should be your first order of business. Ask people to coffee, find ways to add value to them, and get to know them.
And when you’re ready to share your idea, think about who you should talk to first. Is there an influencer you have a relationship with, who could help begin to spread your idea and advocate for it with other people? Is there a stakeholder whose approval you absolutely need before anyone else’s?
Move in an order that makes sense; don’t be random. It usually makes much more sense to approach people 1:1 at first, rather than to hold a big meeting and make an announcement, so you can get feedback on your idea, answer specific questions, and slowly build momentum so that by the time everyone hears your idea, it is a foregone conclusion that it will be adopted.
The right timing
Have you ever had somebody come to you with a minor request when you’re buried under important work with a tight deadline? How excited were you to jump to their assistance, when you were already busy with something else? Probably not very.
Now multiply that by 10, and that’s how your manager or executive team will respond to an idea that’s presented at a time where it doesn’t make any sense.
A good idea presented at the wrong time is likely to fail. Focus is one of the keys of business success, and people aren’t excited to adopt things that look like distractions.
What constitutes “the wrong time”? It’s basically anytime where your idea won’t add value to the main priorities being pursued by your team or organization at the time.
So if your team is focused on hiring and that is your top priority this quarter, any other ideas for improvement in other areas will probably be disregarded. And once you’ve presented an idea and had it disregarded by your leadership, it can be much more difficult to get anyone to listen to it in the future. They’ll be thinking, “Didn’t I already say no to this? Why are we talking about this again?”.
Timing is an important factor in raising a new idea, so it is worth considering if an idea is worth the time right now — or if at all. Crafting a great pitch and getting it in front of the right people takes a lot of time if you’re going to do it right (and you always should), and sometimes the time required is not always justified.
Make sure your idea is worth the effort. The change must be measurable and resulting in a great improvement for the organization.
And it goes without saying that raising any new idea and investing in its success should only happen when all of your regular work is done, and done well. No one will be receptive to your ideas if you aren’t already shining in the areas you’re expected to work on.
The right way
At certain companies, great ideas succeed when they’re presented as narratives. That’s just how the leadership team processes and like to their new information — they want to hear a customer story and a timeline of how the improvement will make things better over time. The story is what matters, and cold hard data just doesn’t cut it.
But at other companies, slides are king. Visual learners and people who are just used to the slide presentation format want to see your ideas laid out in front of them, and in a format they can revisit later.
Finally, there are leaders who love data. No matter how crazy the idea, if the data proves it will work, then they are willing to sign off.
It’s important to see all the distinctions here. While you may think, “A good idea is a good idea, right? Any smart person will be able to see that”, it’s not 100% true. A person who relies on data to make good decisions just won’t find a hypothetical story about a customer convincing. It makes sense, doesn’t it?
If you want ideas to succeed, you need to give people information in a way that is meaningful to them. Speak to them in *their* language; that’s the only way to be sure they hear you.
From there, you need to make your presentation as compelling as possible. Try to imagine every question each person will ask you (these will be different for every person; the finance department cares about different things than the software engineers) and make sure you have an answer. Bonus points if you can answer those questions in your presentation before they ask them.
If you’re not sure what your leadership likes, think back to some recent meetings you have been in. How have the leaders expressed ideas themselves? That will give you a good idea of what they like.
Think also about other ideas that have been adopted recently. What did that person do to convince the people in charge and the influencers? If you don’t know how they did it, ask them. Odds are, if they got an idea passed themselves, they are an influencer too and it is good to have a relationship with them.
How do you make big ideas happen?
Navigating organizations can be a challenge; there are so many unspoken rules and expectations that can impact your success, so you have to work hard to make sure you are giving your ideas the greatest potential to be adopted.
When you’re a first-time manager, there is a lot to learn — and you’ve got to learn it fast. Get the key skills you need to shine as a manager, from leading a team to setting a vision and achieving big picture goals.
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