By Rosabeth Moss Kanter
Regardless of how good it is, no idea sells itself. Before getting commitment to proceed with an idea for a new product, process, venture, technology, service, policy, or organizational change, innovators must sell the idea to potential backers and supporters, and neutralize the critics. They must find resources, expertise, and support. They must convince colleagues to advance the idea in meetings they don't attend.
People whose ideas get traction — that manage get out of the starting gate — take advantage of this practical advice for selling ideas.
- Seek many inputs. Listen actively to many points of view. Then incorporate aspects of each of them into the project plan, so that you can show people exactly where their perspectives or suggestions appear.
- Do your homework. Be thoroughly prepared for meetings and individual discussions. Gather as much hard data as possibly to have command of the full facts, and speak knowledgeably from a broad information base. Know the interests of those to whom you're speaking, and customize the message for them.
- Make the rounds. Meet with people one-on-one to make the first introduction of your idea. It's always a good idea to touch base with people individually before any key meetings, and to give them advance warning of what you and others are planning to say at the meeting. Then they can be prepared (and coached) in your point of view. And you know theirs, so you can modify your proposal accordingly.
- See critics in private and hear them out. One-on-one meetings are especially important when you expect opposition or criticism. Groups can easily turn into mobs. Avoid situations in which critics can gang up on you, or when a group of people leaning positive turn negative because the listen to a few loud voices. Never gather all of your potential critics in one room hoping to hold one meeting to brief everyone all at once. This kind of event mainly helps them discover each other and their common concerns, so they coalesce as a group united in opposition to the idea.
- Make the benefits clear. Arm supporters with arguments. You might rehearse them for meetings in which questions about your project will come up. Stress the value that the idea will produce for them and other groups. Remember that selling ideas is at least a two-step process. You sell one set of people so they can sell others. You convince them to back you because you reduce the risk to them by giving them the tools for selling their own boards or constituencies.
- Be specific. Make your requests concrete, even while connecting your idea to unassailable larger principles. Wait to approach high-level people until your have tested the idea elsewhere and refined your vague notions. The higher the official, the more valuable and scarce his or her time, and thus the more focused your meeting must be. Use peers for initial broad discussions, then ask top executives for one simple action.
- Show that you can deliver. People want to back winners. Early in the process, provide evidence, even guarantees, that the project will work. Later, prove that you can deliver by meeting deadlines and doing what you promised.