A few years ago at a predictive analytics startup I worked for, we introduced a capability in our flagship product that showed marketers when they should run discount promotions to maximize sales. I developed the proof-of-concept methodology myself, and then the PhD folks on our team developed an elegant statistical model to implement in the software. It seemed to work beautifully; in every scenario we tested, what the models told us made sense and showed how we could help our client generate big profits. I was sure we had a home run on our hands. When I walked into a conference room a few months later to present the new capability to our largest customer, a multi-billion dollar commercial products distributor, I was as confident as I’d ever been before a meeting.
It didn’t last long.
Less than five minutes into my presentation, my most senior client was scowling. “Stop, you’re not making any sense,” she said with her arms folded across her chest. I wasn’t prepared for criticism, much less a blunt rebuke, so it knocked me off balance. I started to explain how the methodology worked once more, but I could tell it wasn’t landing any better. “If your explanation didn’t make sense the first time, why would you explain it the same way a second time?” she asked unblinkingly. I tried a different approach, and she swatted that away too. I needed to regain momentum, so I proposed we revisit her question after going through the data in more detail. She grudgingly agreed, perhaps content that she had reminded me (and everyone else) who was boss, but it set the tone for the rest of the meeting. Now, skepticism from your clients is healthy, but feeding frenzies are not. Everyone else in the meeting followed the boss’s lead and tried to one-up each other by finding the littlest nits to pick in my presentation. We barely touched on what I wanted to talk about - whether the idea could really help their business. It was a miserable meeting, and I was depressed afterward over how I failed to get the message across. If not for the free alcohol in business class on United, the three-hour flight home that night would have felt even longer.
That experience left me dumbfounded. To me at least, what I was presenting was compelling from a business standpoint and undeniably innovative. Plus we had hard data, their data, to back up our analysis. Sure, the results of our models were counterintuitive, but my view had always been that the clients didn’t pay us to give them obvious answers. It took nearly three more months and many more presentations, conference calls, and email exchanges to finally get the client to start using the damn feature – and they were already paying for it!
The moral of the story (aside from managing your meetings well) is that big ideas usually are not accepted right away – at least not by everyone whom you need on board. Most of us have our own versions of my terrible meeting story, and the moral is always the same. You might feel confident to the point of certainty about an idea, but getting your audience to feel as confident as you do is often a slog. It takes cleverness, persistence, and plain old hustle to get a big idea across the goal line. This is doubly true if you’re asking people to change how they do their job, or how they view the world. Every once in a while you'll hit a brick wall in a meeting like I did, but it’s much more common for ideas to just lose momentum and die on the vine. Successfully shepherding a new idea from inception to adoption requires careful attention to how you craft and deliver the message as well as securing support.
You’ve Got the Right Message - Now Deliver the Message Right
Because there are always multiple issues competing for managerial attention, your idea needs to be more than just interesting if you want to be heard. Just like how public relations firms have their tactics for circulating an idea and getting it accepted by the mainstream, you need a playbook for gaining acceptance of your ideas. I’ve developed something I call the SPICES framework to help you do precisely that.
- Step back – There are worse things than presenting a half-baked idea, but that’s no excuse to not do your homework. Has your idea already been tried and failed? Are you implicitly asking people to contradict ideas that they’ve committed to previously? Who is going to have rational objections, and who will have emotional objections to what you propose? Anticipate the likely objections and bake those into how you frame the problem for your audience. The challenge is to eradicate sloppy thinking without losing boldness. Don’t water down the idea; just make it easier to swallow.
- Put it in writing – Jeff Bezos of Amazon (among other well known CEOs) is well-known for requiring his senior managers to present ideas in six-page memos that the team reads together in silence to start meetings. Don’t underestimate the written word; writing forces you to sharpen your thoughts. As Bezos puts it, “Full sentences are harder to write. They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.” While your manager probably doesn’t want a six-page memo right away, you should go through the exercise of organizing your thoughts in longform upfront.
- Identify stakeholders – Figure out from whom you want to get input first and who needs to be on board from the start. Note that the final decision maker does not have to be present at the beginning. In fact, it’s best if they aren’t there the whole time while you’re collecting feedback and iterating.
- Choose the right format – This depends on both the content and the nature of the idea you’re presenting. You’ve got e-mail, word docs, spreadsheets, charts, infographics, power point, Prezi and lots of other neat presentation tools all at your disposal. You might decide that drawing the idea on a whiteboard in-person works best, which is fine too. Just don’t limit your options. Choose the format that your audience will enjoy.
- Engage in person – An e-mail may be fine in some cases, but if your target gets two hundred emails a day, you need to work a little harder to get their attention. Take them to lunch or coffee, or get them in front of a whiteboard for a few minutes to walk them through your thoughts. Set up a call he or she can do from the car while driving home if you have to. Make it as easy as possible for them to hear you. And never follow up over the same medium twice in a row.
- Secure Next Steps – Always figure out what your next steps are for any conversation. Who else should you talk to, or what else do you need to think through before the idea can be considered? Take ownership of the next steps whenever possible so that you control the momentum.
The road to acceptance usually involves some iteration and back-and-forth, which is why ideally you want to want to reach out to people who can give you good feedback “off the record”. After you gain acceptance for your proposal among your initial targets, expand to the next group you need to influence until you’ve reached the final decision makers. That might happen in a single step or in several depending on your situation and the kind of change you are trying to effect.
If you’re taking risks and pushing the envelope creatively, you won’t get 100% of your ideas through this stage. But the more you practice socializing your ideas with this framework the higher your “win rate” should get. Set a goal for yourself of getting one significant idea every month into the acceptance pipeline. When you look back after a year, you will amaze yourself with what you managed to put into action, on top of all the other things you do as part of your job. Stay on that track, and you’ll never have a problem writing your self-assessment.