Move New Ideas Forward in Your Organization
Organizations are full of people with great ideas. But most of these ideas remain thoughts floating in people’s minds. People assume they need a specific role or title, or permission to try something new, or that if they share an idea someone else will act on it. According to Karen Holst, co-author of the book Start Within, none of this is true.
In this episode of the Creative Confidence Podcast, Karen shares techniques from her book to help you move from idea to action. The book is organized into three major phases of intrapreneurial work—Get Ready, Get Set, Go—with a variety of tips and activities to try for each step. Karen finds that most people are strong in one of these areas; she’s a “go” type of person. With a bias for action, she wants to start making things real as soon as possible. But she’s learned to develop skills that help her set the right foundation and conditions for her efforts to be successful and she hopes to unlock these same abilities for others.
It can be incredibly difficult to launch an intrapreneurial effort within a company. The path forward is often unclear, it may be out of your typical sphere of influence, and getting your idea off the ground requires buy-in from the right people. Being tactful in your approach can make you more likely to succeed. Karen notes, “if you have the courage to take on this work and become a change maker, you can take your organization into the future.”
The “Get Ready” step is about organizing your idea and assessing the readiness of the organization for change, but that’s not where the work really begins. According to Karen, the first thing we need to focus on is ourselves.
Creating something new is hard work. There’s uncertainty, ambiguity, and there will be many obstacles along the way. Challenges will come from the organization itself, it could be the culture you’re working in, long-existing processes and ways of doing things, naysayers, etc. But the first obstacles people tend to hit are the ones they’ve created for themselves through their own assumptions and biases.
“Embrace the negative thoughts now because after this you’re going to have to be optimistic and positive.”
The first step is to, “unblock ourselves from the self-sabotaging things we say that keep us from doing this work,” says Karen. To do this, she suggests writing down every reason that you couldn’t or shouldn’t take action on your idea. Why will this be too hard, why aren’t you the best person to tackle this, what will get in your way? Making the barriers known will help you make decisions about how to proceed. With all the reasons in front of you, start to categorize them into three buckets: “I can handle this”, “what if”, and “show stoppers.”
I Can Handle This
The “I can handle this” bucket is for manageable problems. You may be surprised by this, but most of your concerns will likely fall into this category. For example, maybe you’re worried about work-life balance and how a new effort will add to your stress. Ask yourself, can you get help with things at home from a roommate or partner? Maybe you don’t know exactly how to do the work, but can you upskill on your own or learn from a colleague or mentor?
The next category of “what if” is for things completely out of your control. Having obstacles in this bucket is expected, though their unpredictable nature makes this category the most uncomfortable to face. What if the company pivots and your idea no longer fits into a future strategy or what if revenue targets are missed and there isn’t enough funding to sustain the effort? By writing these issues down you’ve named them, you know to keep an eye on them, and you can plan for what you might do if things shift. “Prepare for the worst, but hope for the best,” says Karen.
The last category, “showstoppers”, is for the issues that you cause you to come to a full stop so you can rethink the effort altogether. For example, we’re currently living through an economic recession as a result of COVID-19. There’s a great deal of uncertainty about the future viability of many organizations and industries. Perhaps you’ve heard rumors of a likely layoff or reorganization. In these cases, “it’s okay to take a moment to reflect on the timing of your idea, slow down and evaluate the best next steps,” says Karen. Your idea may come to life eventually, but perhaps now is not the right time.
There will never be a perfect time to start something new and you will rarely be given permission to start from someone else. Rather than holding yourself and your ideas back, “accept that you can and should do this work and give yourself the permission to take on the challenge,” says Karen. Get out of your own way first, then you can move forward with confidence and optimism.
The “Get Set” phase is like tending a garden. In this step of the journey, you want to make sure you have the right environment and tools for your idea to take root and grow. In business terms, this means finding the processes within the organization that you’ll need to use, aligning with the priorities of the business so your work fits into the overall goals and strategies, and working with your stakeholders along the way.
Choosing Your Stakeholders
A big part of this phase is about relationships and communication. You’ll need a diverse group of stakeholders to help make your idea as strong as possible and to build the support you need to make real progress. Be strategic about creating this group. Look for people who have power and authority to make things happen, like your boss or a senior executive. Then look for folks who would be impacted by your idea. If your work will require engineering time or affect the sales pipeline, you’ll definitely want to involve them. Lastly, look for influencers—people who aren’t directly tied to the work, but who have clout in the company. “These are the people who others turn to for mentorship and advice,” says Karen and they can often help you get unstuck.
Your Communication Plan
Then you need a communication plan. This is about deciding things like when to address everyone at once, who are the people to talk to early on, how frequently do you need to share progress with larger teams, when will an email or newsletter do, etc. These decisions are largely driven by the type of stakeholder since they will have varying communications needs.
“A good rule of thumb is for every 80 hours of work you put into a task or project, you put one hour of effort into sharing that out.”
To guide this phase, Karen uses a marketing tool called Mendelow’s Matrix, which organizes stakeholders by the amount of power and interest they have in the idea. The four types of stakeholders are:
- Key Players (high interest, high power)
- Keep Satisfied (low interest, high power)
- Minimal Effort (low interest, low power)
- Keep Informed (low power, high interest)
Take your list of stakeholders and map them out on this grid so you can begin to plan how and when you’ll communicate about your progress and with whom.
Key Players: This group includes people like your boss and requires frequent updates because they have the authority to change the idea itself or the team of people you’re working with.
Karen’s recommendation: Weekly check-ins to cover progress and updates.
Keep Satisfied: These could be upper-level management or busy executives who may be interested in your work but have more pressing issues at hand.
Karen’s recommendation: Keep them involved and informed, but not as much as you would your key players.
Minimal Effort: Communication with this group happens as needed with occasional updates (e.g. a systems administrator or an HR rep).
Karen’s recommendation: The work you’re doing doesn’t impact them much, but you will need their help at specific moments in the process.
Keep Informed: You want to keep this group engaged along the way because their interest can fuel you and spread the word about your idea. The key here is to address them collectively and keep the communication effort low.
Karen’s recommendation: Use an internal wiki page or a lunch share-out for touching base with these stakeholders.
The “Go” phase is all about taking action through prototyping. This will help you overcome fear of failure and the need for perfection as you begin to make your ideas tangible. Along the way, you’ll find and support a team to help you launch your ideas, but you’ll also find naysayers and get hit with lots of no’s. From the “Get Set” phase you have a group of stakeholders and you may think that you have buy-in from them, the no’s may surprise you.
“Buy-in from stakeholders and teams doesn’t mean everyone is on board, it means you have the support to try and make this work.”
Moving from “No” to “Yes”
Rather than stopping at the word “no”, Karen recommends finding ways to turn no’s into yeses so you can push forward. In this phase, you’re learning more about your idea and also how people perceive your idea. With this mindset, no’s aren’t failures, they’re learning opportunities and by embracing them you can work with naysayers to improve your idea. “It’s a new reflection point on challenges you need to address, and helps you get past what you think your idea should be into a form that works for your organization,” says Karen.
To overcome this barrier, begin by writing down all the no’s you hear and put them into a column called “no, because.” Then create another column next to your no’s and label it “maybe if.” In this column, try to reframe the “no” into a “maybe” in a way that slightly reframes your idea, but still allows you to accomplish your high-level goal. Lastly, create a third column and label it “then what.” To fill out this column, look at your “maybe if’s” and ask yourself what you would need to do next if you were to take action.
For example, Karen recently worked with a client who wanted to create a better remote culture to support teams who shifted to working from home in the wake of COVID-19. When the client approached her manager about this she quickly got a no. She knew there was a need for this, but felt stuck and didn’t know how to move forward. When Karen sat down with her, they began with the no’s: no because this isn’t your role, no because someone else should do this work, no because we are remote and how can you build a culture in this environment anyway.
With all the no’s in front of them, they began to flip them into maybes. In response to “no, because this isn’t your job,” they thought “well, your role is within facilities and maybe you can pitch this as a facilities job.” Then they started brainstorming on “then what.” They came up with tons of great ideas. Ultimately she decided to use her facilities budget to let employees order food and they had meals together, she curated images and made a digital magazine that came out regularly, and she was able to work around the initial obstacle and make progress. Now, she has prototypes that have worked and she didn’t need permission to do them. With these successes in hand, she can go back to that original naysayer and make a case for a bigger effort.
Change is scary and inevitable, but it's also full of possibilities. This work is not reserved for people with specific titles or roles—everyone can innovate. For Karen, it’s about “getting past the buzzword of innovation or intrapreneur and just embracing what it’s really about—making things better—it’s that simple and that’s in all of us.”
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