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What to consider when selling your ideas…

August 18, 2008

Scanning Your Organization

ssessing your organizational environment, you lay the groundwork for success in getting your ideas accepted and implemented. The several points that follow can provide you with the information you need to get started. It is not essential to assess the points in this order, but this is a logical sequence, in that one thing tends to build on another. Assessing these points will tell you what you know—and don’t know. If you attempt to assess one of the points and don’t come up with an answer, that’s important. You will have to decide whether to proceed with a gap in your knowledge or to try harder to get an answer.

The Fit with Your Organization’s Goals

Your organization’s explicit goals are recorded (and, ideally, well communicated). You can find evidence of them in its vision statement, its mission, its strategic objectives, its structure, and other forms. On the other hand, the implicit goals of your organization are less visible. These are the “what we try to do around here” ideas that people carry with them, believe, and act on. The more closely you can align your ideas with your organization’s spoken and unspoken goals, the better chance you have of getting your ideas accepted and implemented.

For example, let’s assume that your organization places a high value on teamwork across its divisions. That’s a goal it states in its working principles, and it’s a practice that managers throughout the organization strive to achieve. If you tie your idea to a sense of teamwork, if you can present it as supporting and enabling that particular goal, there’s a good chance that people will support it. The opposite also holds true. If your idea goes against any of your organization’s written goals, objectives, or values—or the unwritten ones—or if it goes against the grain of common practice, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, for you to get support for your idea, no matter how beneficial it may be. You’re going to have to make a much more difficult push to get your idea sold, and you have to plan for that accordingly. People have to see the benefit right away, and one way to help them see that is to align your ideas with what they want to achieve.

Leadership Task

Gather your organization’s mission statement, vision statement, and strategic plan. What are the explicit goals suggested in those documents?

Your Group’s (and Your Own) Position in Your Organization

Make a frank assessment of your group’s position (and your personal position) in the true hierarchy of your organization. To make this assessment, you’ll need to go beyond the official organizational chart and become aware of the unwritten pecking order— the informal power structure, which is often very different from the organizational chart. That order can change with different circumstances, such as increased competition, a new CEO, or some other realignment. Consider your organization. Does the sales force drive your organization’s work, or is it the finance group or the marketing group? Is production the driving force, or does your organization measure itself in the number of grants it receives? What about innovation, research, and development? Do those functions create the heart of your organization? Whatever your answer, how are you positioned in relation to the driving forces in your organization? Are you part of them, or do you work outside of those functions? These are the kinds of relationships that determine the true hierarchy of your organization.

For example, if you’re a group director in the manufacturing end of your organization, and you’ve got an idea for improving a production process, you may realize that you need support from the finance group in order to procure the new equipment that your improvement requires. You know also that financials drive many of your organization’s decisions. In the true hierarchy, even though you have the same title as a group director in finance, you are really not at the same level. This is the kind of relationship you need to assess and consider. You want to determine where you and your group are positioned in the structure that reflects how things work in your organization.

Leadership Task

Get a copy of the organizational chart. Then draw your own chart, but instead of reporting relationships, think of the informal power structure in your organization. How do things get done? Represent more powerful groups with larger blocks or circles. Draw arrows that represent how ideas and projects move through the organization—for example, does everything need to pass through finance? Does your idea need buy-in from IT?

Become aware of the unwritten pecking order—the informal power structure, which is often very different from the organizational chart.

Support Needed from Key People in Key Groups

Among the groups that you’ve identified as important in your organization’s true hierarchy, there are people who must at some level endorse your ideas. You will need to determine what level that is. From some group leaders you will only need an okay or a mutual understanding of your ideas. From some other group leaders you may need a willingness to help, and you may want to measure to what degree they can be helpful and what kind of help they can provide. For example, you may want some groups to share resources, while from others you need communication support.

To increase your chances of success in getting your ideas adopted, it’s important that you make your needs very clear to each crucial group. What’s more, you need to make your solicitation for support and your expectation for a level of support especially clear to the leaders in these groups. If you need official approval from any of these groups or their leaders, you may need to make a more formal appeal than you might make if you only need a group’s tacit approval.

Leadership Task

List the groups you need to work with to get your idea sold, identify the key people in those groups, and describe the level of support you need from them.

Resources

Just about any new idea requires resources to implement. The resource you need may be money, but just as often you need staff, equipment, access to data, access to expertise, administrative support, storage, and other noncash resources. You may not be able to describe the resources you need by a monetary amount, but they still have to be accounted for. Organizations typically align resources toward achieving their goals, and accommodating a new idea may require shifting that alignment.

Also keep in mind the competition for resources inside your organization. In considering the resources you need for selling and implementing your idea, who or what other group is competing for the same resources? Compare your idea with their work. Think about how to integrate or match up the two so that resources can be shared for mutual benefit.

Integration and sharing may not be possible. In that case, you should analyze your likely adversaries in competing for resources. You should also take stock of your likely allies—those people and groups you’ve identified as possible supporters.

Leadership Task

List the groups or people who have resources you need. Think about how you can request those resources in the context of other people’s making the same request. Who will likely be pushing back against your idea for whatever reasons? Try to think about their reasons from their perspective. And who are your likely allies?

Your Group’s Commitment to Your Idea

It’s obvious and therefore easy to overlook, but before you try to sell a new idea to other parts of your organization, make sure that people in your own group support it. Otherwise, somebody in your group could sabotage your idea with a simple remark in the hall. For example, someone outside Mary’s group approaches and says to one of her group members, “I was just talking to Mary about her idea.” And Mary’s group member replies, “Well, I’m not crazy about it. It’s all Mary’s idea, and I don’t think it’ll fly.” If the people in your own group don’t fully support your idea, your chances of garnering external support are dramatically reduced.

Sabotage can be unintentional. Let’s say, for example, that a group leader from another part of your organization is riding the elevator with one of your group members and mentions that he has heard something about a new idea you’ve brought up. Your group member says, “I don’t know much about it. He’s always coming up with new ideas.” The other group leader is likely to feel that he doesn’t need to put any energy into supporting it if your own group members don’t even know much about it.

Allies, Adversaries . . . and More Adversaries

You will have allies and adversaries, and there will be a third group as well—those who just want to maintain the status quo. There are some people who just like for things to stay the way they are. Even though they may not be competing for the resources you need, they’d rather not get involved with your idea. It may create too much work for them, it may change their power base, or it may cause them to do things they’re not too comfortable with. They are people who, for one reason or another, just don’t want to be bothered. They wind up being adversaries—maybe not as strong, but certainly in that group.

Depending on your organization, this group could be a large percentage. The environmental scan will help determine how open your organization is to change.

Intentional or not, these missteps can be avoided if you ask for input and get your group’s support before going out to talk to other people about your idea. Keep in mind that the number of people in your group could be larger than you think—larger, say, than the people who report directly to you. People outside your group may perceive that more people are aligned with your group than what’s on the organizational chart (the true hierarchy revealing itself).

Before you try to sell a new idea to other parts of your organization, make sure that people in your own group support it

Your Group’s Commitment to Your Idea

It’s obvious and therefore easy to overlook, but before you try to sell a new idea to other parts of your organization, make sure that people in your own group support it. Otherwise, somebody in your group could sabotage your idea with a simple remark in the hall. For example, someone outside Mary’s group approaches and says to one of her group members, “I was just talking to Mary about her idea.” And Mary’s group member replies, “Well, I’m not crazy about it. It’s all Mary’s idea, and I don’t think it’ll fly.” If the people in your own group don’t fully support your idea, your chances of garnering external support are dramatically reduced.

Sabotage can be unintentional. Let’s say, for example, that a group leader from another part of your organization is riding the elevator with one of your group members and mentions that he has heard something about a new idea you’ve brought up. Your group member says, “I don’t know much about it. He’s always coming up with new ideas.” The other group leader is likely to feel that he doesn’t need to put any energy into supporting it if your own group members don’t even know much about it.

Key Point Summary

When you want to sell an idea to your organization, there are two important things to consider: an environmental scan and a collection of tactics.

Scanning your organizational environment lays the groundwork for success. You should assess how well your idea fits with your organization’s goals, where you and your group are positioned in the true hierarchy of your organization, the level of support you need from key people in key groups, the kinds and amounts of resources you need, your own group’s commitment to your idea, others who can help you sell or implement your idea, the possibility that others may feel threatened by your idea, and the possibility that your idea may be misinterpreted. Assessing these points will tell you what you know—and don’t know.

When you’ve completed your scan of your organization, you can start to work on actually selling your idea. The following tactics can help: drawing attention to the need or opportunity, creating a favorable perception of your idea, leveraging past support, starting with your most likely allies, considering possible adjustments, and timing it right. You can also work on a small scale to build momentum, build in room to negotiate, and explain the potential rewards and consequences. The more tactics you have to draw on, the more precise and effective action you can take in different situations. Start by building as many options into your repertoire as you can so that when one tactic doesn’t work or isn’t available in a specific circumstance you can draw on another and keep moving forward.

Assessing the environment and considering tactics you can use will prepare you for a successful campaign. You will be more likely to accomplish your objective—solving the problem or making the improvement for the benefit of individuals, groups, and the organization as a whole.

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