We’ve all been there. Excited about a great idea and ready to run with it, but it gets squashed by the leadership team before it can ever see the light of day. So what do you do when the verdict on an innovative new concept is a no?
Start by considering why they’re saying no. Often, it’s because of factors that have nothing to do with the strength of your idea—there’s a cultural aversion to change, a lack of engagement on the leadership team, or too many other ideas in the pipeline. But roadblocks don't have to be the death of an idea. With a simple, three-step strategy—prepare, listen, and follow-up—you can set yourself on the path to blowing past them. Read on to find out how.
Prepare, listen, and follow up with the right question and you can get leaders to reflect, instead of react.
Roadblock #1: Aversion to Change
Problem: The team or leadership isn’t actually interested in new ideas, because of previous project failures or fear of the unknown.
Prepare: Leverage an "idea fitness" approach. IDEO CEO Tim Brown considers fit ideas to be those that have strong evidence supporting them—rough prototypes that show how the concept works, a compelling story that tells why the idea is meaningful, or user insights that demonstrate why the idea is necessary. Make sure you can walk into your meeting with proof that this idea is a strong one. Bring two or three pieces of evidence, for example, compelling stories that show how your idea is meaningful, plans on how the idea will move forward, or user insights. Start by discussing your findings, and how they led to your solution.
Listen: Even the fittest of ideas can still fail to gain approval from leadership. If you get a "no," listen to the reasons behind it.
Follow up: Recognize that your time in front of the leadership team is an opportunity to ask more thoughtful questions: “What would you like to see us address that we haven't?”
As a project leader, it’s important that you communicate the intent of an idea and how it will affect the company or organization. Understanding the team’s concerns will help you address problems, tweak the design, and communicate value.
Roadblock #2: Lack of Leadership Engagement
Problem: Key stakeholders need to be part of idea creation, but getting them engaged in the early stages can be challenging. Whether leadership is too busy or wants to see fully vetted ideas before they’re willing to get involved, sporadic or occasional engagement won't ensure an idea gets buy-in.
Prepare: Ask leaders to "squint" at early ideas to get them invested in a project from the beginning. As Tom Kelley, IDEO partner, explains, “Squinting is a great method for keeping an open mind when hearing about ideas still in their early stages. When you squint, you ignore the surface details and ask yourself, is there a kernel of an idea here? It’s also a way to welcome ideas early before people are too attached to them.”
When you set the stage for early conversations, invite stakeholders to look past the details and focus on the basic ideas. Before presenting a new concept, invite the team to take a step back, and see if they can see a shape of something they might be able to build on.
Listen: Still finding it hard to engage leaders throughout the process? Ask them why engagement is falling short. Be sure to build empathy for the stakeholder, and try to truly understand their needs.
Follow up: Once you’re rooted in a better empathetic foundation, ask the question, “What objectives or strategies would you like to be involved in?”
As a project leader, you need to make sure you keep stakeholders involved. If you understand stakeholder motivations, you can focus on what will be most meaningful to them when you update them on the work.
Roadblock #3: Too Many Ideas
Problem: Companies need good ideas to flourish. But most teams will agree that the problem isn’t a lack of ideas, it’s that there are too many ideas. It’s challenging for leaders to balance the everyday running of the business with visionary work, and an overabundance of options can over-extend resources, people, and profitability and cause disruption in the day-to-day running of the business.
Prepare: Use the “optimism rooted in realism” method to empathize with leadership. Embrace the goals your company is striving to achieve, while keeping a realistic perspective on what’s going on in your organization. Understanding the tensions between the two will give you the balanced perspective that leaders juggle every day.
As an example, a company’s long-term goal may be to unlock new markets and retain new customers. But it has already instituted a hiring freeze and is understaffed in many areas. You may be holding onto a great idea that will tap into new markets, but the reality is that resources are over-extended and employees are struggling just to serve the existing customers.
Listen: Ask leadership how ideas get filtered and figure out how you can position yours to stand out and move to the next phase.
Follow up: Given the tension between goals and realities, ask, “What hurdles do we need to address before we can execute on an idea like this?” To cut through the noise will help you articulate the costs and benefits to help leaders make better-informed decisions on ideas.
Want to learn more about how to create a movement to catalyze change in your organization or network by mobilizing people? Check out our Leading for Creativity online course.