A common complaint that I hear when I run innovation workshops is this, ‘I have plenty of really creative ideas but my boss just isn’t interested in trying anything new. What can I do?’ Let’s leave aside the possibility that this view is itself distorted and take it at face value. It is a tricky situation that most of us will experience at some time. What can be done? Here are some approaches that can prove helpful:
- Understand his objectives and motivations.
Selling an idea is like selling any other product. You have to understand the needs, motives and priorities of the customer. What are your boss’s ‘hot buttons’? What are the issues that really worry him? Is he motivated by pride, ego, money, career advancement, power, recognition or does he want an easy life? If you can discover his goals and his motivations then you can try to present your idea in a way that plays to them. Stress the outcomes of the idea that will help him in one or more of these fields. (Of course your boss can be male or female but for simplicity the boss is referred to as ‘he’ rather than ‘he or she’).
- Understand his decision making style.
How does your boss make decisions? Does he prefer numbers, reference from trusted sources, evidence of proof elsewhere, avoidance of risk, logic or emotion? Does he make quick decisions or does he like to chew things over for a while? A recent article in Harvard Business Review by Williams and Miller identified five different styles of decision maker. If you know which style fits your boss then you can tailor your message to give it the best chance of success.
- Align your idea with corporate objectives.
It will help if you can show that your idea fits with current corporate objectives. Show clearly that the suggestion will benefit the larger organization.
- Choose the right time.
Don’t barge into your boss’s office at the end of a hectic day and buttonhole him with your great idea. Chances are he will simply say no. Instead ask him for some time to discuss an important issue and mention the benefit. ‘Can you spare 20 minutes first thing tomorrow morning to review an idea to significantly improve departmental productivity?’ Don’t give the idea away now – you need his full attention to cover it properly.
- If he is risk averse sell risk avoidance.
Sell the benefits of the idea and try to match them to his needs and priorities. Show that you have thought about the risks, costs and downsides. If your boss if risk averse then stress the risks of not implementing the idea. ‘If we don’t seize this opportunity now, other departments could step in ahead of us and gain an advantage.’
- Don’t ask for approval, ask for suggestions.
With some bosses it is better not to present a fully formed plan but simply to introduce the concept and ask for his input and advice. Do this if he prefers to discuss things and shape them rather than review and approve. This way you can let him form his version of the idea and claim the credit. You will have the quiet satisfaction of knowing that it came from you.
- Build a coalition of supporters.
With some ideas it is better to gain some initial support before asking for approval. Who do you need on your side to help push the idea through? Have a chat with them first. ‘I checked with Betty in IT and with Bob in HR and they agreed that we can resource this if it is approved.’
- Try the company suggestions scheme.
If your boss shows no interest (and probably never will) then you can always try the official suggestions scheme. The evaluator may see the merit of the idea. In any event it is registered and that means it can be discussed in the open.
- Build it anyway.
This is the ultimate act of confidence and bravado. Do it in your own time as a ‘skunk works’ project and then you can demonstrate the prototype to garner support. Present it as a fait accompli and boldly shrug off any notions that it needed prior approval.
There is considerable evidence that middle managers block innovations. So if you want your idea to succeed you will need a clever way of gaining approval. Don’t give up; your organization needs innovators!