Estimated reading time: 7 mins
Nobody has the monopoly on good ideas. You may find yourself in a situation where you have a good idea that can revolutionize your organization, if only ‘management’ could see it. You’re bursting at the seams to speak to someone who can sponsor the idea and make it happen. For the bright technical professionals who understand the business of their organization, this is a common situation.
Here are some guidelines to translate your ideas into something ‘management’ can understand and make a decision from.
Firstly, avoid selling your ideas in an immediate, uncontrolled burst – this is often the downfall of many good ideas. Don’t jump in feet first. You’ll find that your pitch will land better if it’s thought through and articulated in a calm, business-like fashion. You should try to share your thoughts with colleagues to get their view – often they’ll think of something fundamental, which means you’re back to the drawing board (better at this stage!) or conversely they may come up with something to enhance your ideas. For technical professionals in a meritocracy, this can be difficult as you may have fears of someone stealing your ideas. If that is the case, then seek someone external to your team or organization that could help.
So now you’ve got yourself under control, you’ll need to find an influential sponsor to share your idea with and to get sponsorship in moving your idea forward. Ideally, your sponsor will a) have influence in the organization, b) be a manager or leader in the line (i.e. will have professional affiliation with the organization your idea targets, and c) have a good rapport and credibility with you.
If you select a potential sponsor that doesn’t fall into category c, then you’ll have some work to do the get their ear. You could try crafting a well structured email requesting their audience, or putting yourself right in front of them.
Once you have identified a potential sponsor then invite him or her for a meeting to explain your ideas and what outcome you desire – i.e. sponsorship. This is your first ‘sales’ opportunity for your idea. You’re likely not to have a sharp pitch at this stage. Don’t worry. You should use this as a learning exercise. If your idea is good enough, then your sponsor should see it and forgive any shortfalls in your patter. Here are some tips you could employ at this stage:
- Avoid solutionizing the problem or opportunity that your potential sponsor doesn’t know exists yet. Explain the background to your thinking – explained best if backed up with some facts and research.
- Give your potential sponsor ample opportunity to ask questions. Don’t get frustrated if he or she doesn’t get your ideas straight away.
- Avoid jargon. Technical professionals often fall into the trap of using technical language that comes naturally to them, whilst forgetting the listener may not be familiar with the terms. If you have to be technical, consider what analogies you may use to explain the concept. Analogies are very powerful tools for helping the conversation along.
- Go into the discussion with an open mind, and don’t think you have all the answers. Allow your potential sponsor to influence your pitch – don’t let pride get in the way. Use the discussion to reaffirm some of your ideas, and discard others if necessary.
- Give the potential sponsor an opportunity to say no. Don’t be upset if he or she decides they can’t help you.
- Contract the sponsorship. Agree a timeframe for the alliance and a framework for getting together to discuss progress. Also ensure you agree how you’ll take the ideas forward, and the roles you and your sponsor will play.
Once you’ve got sponsorship, you’ll probably be asked to come up with a proposal. A proposal is your ‘selling tool’ that describes your ideas and the benefits to the organization they will create. Before you begin, consult your sponsor to get a view on what will happen with the proposal. You should think about the audience and how it will be processed. Some organizations use formal processes for considering and acting upon new ideas. Innovative ideas that challenge the structure of the organization will, at some point, be faced with resistance, so incorporate planning of next steps into the proposal.
Using your proposal, you should aim to create dissatisfaction in the current situation with your intended audience. There must be pressure for change – dissatisfaction is a powerful motivator. You can express this as ‘move away’, e.g. the issues or risks you proposal aims to move your organization away from. However, a much more powerful form expression is ‘move to’, i.e. create a vision of what’s possible. Your sponsor should be able to visualize a world where your possibilities are realized. They should be able to work out what they are dissatisfied in the current situation themselves, and they can often consider factors you hadn’t thought of yourself.
You should try to ascertain what success criteria your project would be subjected to in both quantitative (e.g. profit, productivity, etc) and qualitative (e.g. better customer satisfaction). Many organizations use a ‘balanced scorecard’ for monitoring organizational progress against business and strategic initiatives. If you can, get hold of this and distil the scorecard to be appropriate to your proposal. Executives familiar with the scorecard should be delighted to see potential ways of moving forward on these initiatives.
Regularly seek views from other people, particularly those of stakeholders. Reference these in your proposal. Anecdotes can add to the interest and the mention of respected influencers is very powerful.
Construct a rough idea of a plan – think about the phasing and timelines for implementing your ideas, and just as important, describe who should be involved and what resources may be needed. Allied to this, prepare a few next steps – describe what the immediate short-term actions should be.
Avoid ‘Death By Powerpoint’ – if you’re using powerpoint, don’t plough everything into the slides, rather, use it as a prompt for discussion. A proposal is much more powerful if you speak from the heart and show your passion for the outcome. Your proposal should be succinct and clear. I.e. it should be as short as possible and not contain ‘waffle’. If necessary, supply background documents separately if additional context is required. Don’t include technical diagrams, but rather conceptualize the technical content if you must. Technical content can come later if your proposal is given the green light to proceed. Moreover, most IT professionals have strong analytical skills. Put them to good use. Look at your proposal as a ‘program’ or systems design. Superfluous content is typically scrubbed out of these artifacts, so keep them in only if they serve a secondary purpose (e.g. add to the credibility of the proposal). Consider the effect of document style – make sure it flows logically and is neatly formatted. Use your sponsor to get their second opinion.
Once your proposal is complete, you and your sponsor should take it to the relevant body for consideration. Your sponsor will most likely take the reigns, so your role should be to support and document the outcomes of discussions. The first step is likely to be a meeting. You should ensure that minutes are taken; even if you have to do this yourself.
Be prepared for challenge by the audience. If you’ve contacted with your sponsor this way, allow them to field the challenges with your support. Don’t be defensive! Rather, note the challenges and agree to go back to the audience with answers should you not be able to deal with them at the time.
Document the minutes using organization standard if possible and, once you have given your sponsor an opportunity to comment, distribute them to the audience.
You’re now on your road to realizing your ideas. From this point, your organizations behavioral preferences are likely to control how the proposal moves forward. Your relationship with your sponsor is key in providing the right drive in making it happen.
Applying Thought Leadership can be more productive if you use an executive sponsor and articulate your ideas clearly and appropriately. Be ready to present your ideas and allow challenging questions into your thought process. Allow your ideas to evolve with the involvement of others and above all, don’t be defensive or upset if they’re not bought into straight away! Avoid Death-By-Powerpoint!