How to Sell Your Idea Internally
We all know the stories of managers who far too often dismiss the ideas of their employees.
When we seem to get more “no”, than “yes”, we tend to blame the leadership, or perhaps the organizational culture.
But there’s more to rejected ideas than meets the eye.
Indeed, in some top-down corporate cultures ideas are not valued as much as they should, and people don’t feel comfortable enough to speak up. When there’s a systematic refusal to embrace change, things become complicated. Structural changes take time and effort, and unfortunately, they can never be implemented by a single person.
However, there’s also another side to the story, which we’ll present in this article. Sometimes managers and leaders do have good reasons to say no to new ideas. Maybe they are just bad ideas, maybe the timing is wrong, or the delivery simply was not the best. Whatever the reason, it’s good to know that these things can be influenced and improved upon at an individual level.
Ideally, every organization would be an idea meritocracy, but that unfortunately isn’t the reality. In most organizations, if you want to get things done, you need to spend time selling your ideas.
So, to help you overcome the frustration of having your ideas refused, and to increase your chances to get to “yes”, we’ll go through some steps, tools and tactics that can help you win people over and get them on board.
Table of contents
What “selling” an idea means?
There’s certain reluctancy towards the term “selling”. It mostly comes from times when selling meant cold calls and annoying people knocking on your door trying to push things you didn’t need down your throat.
However, times have changed, and this stereotype is no longer valid. Today we can sell services, products, ideas and even ourselves through “personal branding”, without being pushy or irrelevant.
So, when we talk about “selling” an idea, we simply refer to winning over support from decision makers, colleagues, or even from those reporting to us or other stakeholders.
To put things into perspective, selling an idea can be done in three directions:
- Up: to managers, leaders, executives
- Down: to those who report to you
- Laterally: to coworkers or other stakeholders like experts on a topic, thought leaders within the organization and so on.
Before getting deeper into the specifics, we’d like to shed light on some of the concepts that are involved in the process. We believe this is an important section that can help you frame your messaging and prepare for the pitch.
The bad reputation of sales is also due to the idea that selling is manipulative. More experienced leaders can smell manipulation from afar and they don’t respond well to it.
In her book, The Art of Quiet Influence, Jocelyn Davis explains the differences between persuasion and influence and why the latter is what matters most in selling your ideas.
As she explains, persuasion is about getting someone to do things our way while influence is about working together with someone towards something new.
So, if you want to sell your idea, you should exercise influence by inviting participation. This yields better results and encourages collaboration.
If you want to sell your idea, you should exercise influence by inviting participation.
Nobody wants to be manipulated or pushed into doing something. However, we respond positively if we have something to learn or gain. If you don’t provide such incentives, then there’s a high risk that your idea will get rejected.
Besides these two similar concepts, we also have power and authority, two nuanced ideas that are often confused because they overlap.
Many ideas don’t move forward because there’s always someone somewhere who fears losing power. So, if you want to be the “owner” of the idea and don’t want to share “ownership” by giving credit and responsibility to others, a decision-maker won’t have much skin in the game and could even feel threatened.
Losing control is a very natural fear for most people and it’s inevitably transferred over to professional life as well. It’s not easy, but it’s often best to envision the results, stick to the bigger picture, and give up full “ownership” of the idea. Sharing power has more benefits than the perception of losing it.
To summarize this section, remember the key elements that help you exert influence and get your message across: invite participation, share power and show how everyone involved can contribute to progress and benefit from it.
Now that we clarified some of the core concepts involved in the process, let’s see how to prepare for the pitch and for what comes after.
Prepare the ground to sell your idea
Inevitably, organizations have some internal politics that dictate how things work. Especially large ones. It’s almost impossible for a newcomer or someone detached from how things work internally, to suggest an idea, and succeed.
So, first thing first, be patient and learn your way around the company, and more importantly, the people within. Different people have different motivations in their work. Pay attention to what these motivators are.
For example, if a business unit manager is rewarded solely based on the results of the business unit, it’s highly unlikely they will spend a lot of their time and resources on advancing ideas what won’t benefit their unit directly, even if that would be beneficial for the organization at large.
This preparation work takes time, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that getting ideas approved and everyone on board can’t be done overnight.
How do you then prepare the ground for your idea(s)? Whether you have a bold idea for a new line of products, or a less obvious suggestion for incremental improvements, you often still need to prepare the foundation and plan your tactic. Here’s how:
Build trust, prove expertise, and show commitment.
As previously mentioned, take your time to learn your way around the company, to know people, but also to prove your expertise. Nobody likes a bragger, but everyone loves a doer who’s willing to help.
An idea’s relevance is most often assessed by who delivers it. So, if you want to catch the attention of decision makers, you need a proven track record of your success in the field, and solid knowledge of the topic. This will give you more leverage and help you earn trust. If managers know what you’ve achieved, they will be more open to listen to your suggestions.
Great innovators and highly creative people come up with ideas in very different settings. It’s not always the brainstorming sessions or group activities that yield the best results. However, you can still draw benefits from sharing your ideas with others.
Don’t just keep your idea to yourself and blurt it out to a manager when you find the courage. Instead, get out there, meet people, build relationships, ask questions to understand the topic and get inspired by their feedback. This will help you shape your idea better and gather support.
It depends on the context, but getting approval and feedback from colleagues is a big step forward.
First, because you’ll have a fresh perspective which you might not have considered before.
Second, their support will give you confidence to move forward and can serve as a selling argument to your manager/ leader.
For example, if your idea impacts a specific department or a group can influence the final decision, make sure to understand their point of view as well.
When building relationships, it’s also a good idea to discuss the problem with relevant stakeholders. Before you start selling an idea, you’re already halfway there if everyone agrees that whatever problem the idea solves is an important and urgent problem. If you’ve already discussed it with people, they feel heard and they appreciate you’ve included them and their views in the process.
Understand the audience
A natural next step is to understand those who you’re selling to. This should be a strategic move because even though you are selling your idea internally, the principles are the same as if you were selling to potential customers.
It’s great if you are excited and you show it, but it’s more about what would get others excited. If you want to succeed in selling your idea you should try to understand both those who you’re selling to, but also those who might be impacted by it.
Uncover their motivators, provide an incentive. Why would someone back you up? What’s in it for them and why should they be excited as well?
By genuinely listening to others, their concerns, or suggestions you can create common ground. As mentioned, it shouldn’t be about convincing others to do things your way, but about working together and using your influence for new, improved ideas.
Understand the internal rules and norms
A fourth, important point that goes hand in hand with the previous two, is that you need to understand how the organization really functions. When you build relationships and listen to people, you also start to learn about the unwritten rules.
Corporate cultures are very different, and while one might be more traditional in how they communicate internally, another can be more informal and open to unconventional ways of sharing ideas.
This is up to you to find out, but an HBR research revealed that there is a winning sequence in how you present your idea. Those with higher success rate at selling their ideas first presented it in an informal setting to catch the interest and later switched to formal presentations. In fact, best sellers adapt their tactic according to the conventions of the company.
Those with higher success rate at selling their ideas first presented it in an informal setting to catch the interest and later switched to formal presentations.
Therefore, it’s important to have a good understanding of these unwritten rules.
Understand emotions on both sides
As previously mentioned, we are always confronted with human emotions even in our professional lives, no matter where we work.
All companies have an emotional culture, whether they are aware of it or not. Unfortunately, most organizations focus solely on the cognitive culture (shared intellectual values and norms) and not enough on another critical aspect: the emotional one (shared affective values and norms).
Of course, this is not something you, as an individual can change alone, but having a sense of the emotional culture in your company, will help you sell your ideas. Some leaders and managers see displays of emotions (whether negative or positive) as unprofessional, or signs of weakness. Studies show that people who regulate their feelings have higher chances to succeed in selling their idea.
Even though some ideas come from frustration with certain situations, it’s best not to show such negative feelings because they can be perceived as complaints or criticism towards leaders.
Not to say that you should not criticize, or question authority, but it should be done tactfully. As mentioned before, showing excitement, and highlighting actions and benefits can inspire positive emotions.
The same goes for understanding the feelings of the decision-makers. What are their fears, and concerns?
For example, if you want to suggest a cheaper technology than the one your manager chose just a year before. It might seem that you question their authority or decision-making skills. If, in your presentation you include not just the financial benefits, but also why the first choice was a good option at that time, it can make them feel safe and not pointed at.
You’ve gone through the preparation work, you know how things work internally, some coworkers are backing you up, stakeholders gave you good insights. So, you’re ready to pitch the idea. Now what? Let’s take it step-by-step.
Steps to sell your idea
If you have gone through the above-mentioned preparation, you probably know that you need to find a balance between a pragmatic, data-based approach and a clever use of emotions that help your personality (along with your idea) shine through.
To start with a solid foundation, link your idea to the company’s vision and goals. It should be clear that it’s serving in a way or another the company’s wellbeing. Now, let’s see more practical steps to follow.
1. Frame the problem
Not all ideas that managers receive are solutions to problems. However, it’s best if your idea is trying to fix or improve something. Whether you know a way to automate a process, how to save money or improve aspects of corporate culture, you should always explain the “why” behind your idea.
In his famous TED Talk, Simon Sinek talks about the importance of explaining the why, which is at the core of your message. All the great thinkers and leaders sold their ideas by helping their audience understand the WHY.
Furthermore, the HBR study mentioned earlier also suggests that those who succeed at selling their idea point out to ways of fixing issues. This shows that they’ve put thought into it. So, it’s not just about having an idea and presenting it, but also about why you came up with it and what problem it solves.
On the other hand, coming up with a solution can also backfire, for example if it has obvious issues. Not all problems have a simple, straightforward solution. Sometimes, you need more brain power to provide different perspectives on how to fix things. This will prevent poor decisions along the way.
That’s why the preparation work is so important. Involve others in the development of your idea, talk to stakeholders and coworkers in advance to get them on board. This takes us to our next point.
2. Show you’ve done your research
Clearly, it’s crucial to put things into context. Why and how your idea came to be, what others think about it, what are the concerns and the benefits. There’s always more than one side to a story. To be convincing, show that you know what you’re talking about. Has this been tried before? Are there any examples of how others succeeded? Do you have data or research that can back up your claims?
Let’s take the example of a sales manager from an oil company in Canada that had problems retaining employees. The divisions were poorly organized. It reflected badly on the organization, and it caused conflicts. The problem was that sales reps divided work by regions, not by clients. So, in effect many salespeople would fight for the same customers because companies had branches in various regions.
After doing his research, the regional sales manager presented the problem and the solution. He emphasized how other companies in the industry organize their teams, how every year they were losing 40% of their staff and how commission-based income, instead of fixed salaries, would increase the retention rate.
He also used this research to provide recommendations on how to double the revenue in the upcoming years. As the CEO had recently announced this target to the shareholders, the sales manager knew how to connect his idea with the internal needs. Which takes us to the next point on the list.
3. Connect your idea to the internal needs
It’s always good to highlight the business benefits of your idea. If you suggest a new tool, it can first seem unnecessary. But if that tool helps speed response rates to customer inquiries, or improves customer retention, then it can become an important asset for the strategic goals of the company.
If you have business related metrics, even better. If you’ve done your homework, you should know the motivators of the person you’re selling to. The benefits of the idea you choose to communicate can also reflect these motivators.
4. The follow-up
You did your best to prepare, and pitch the idea, but things never end with an approval or a rejection.
If you get the green light, congratulations! You still have a lot of work ahead of you. Most ideas are far from perfect in their initial stage so the refining and developing stages are very important. To help you with this, we wrote a guide that covers the most important aspects of idea development and refinement which provides actionable advice on how to get it right.
However, if your idea is rejected, you should not be discouraged. Most innovators are rejected countless times before they eventually succeed. Rejection is just a part of the process, not an end to it. It’s an opportunity for you to learn and develop yourself and your idea.
Rejection is just a part of the process, not an end to it. It’s an opportunity for you to learn and develop yourself and your idea.
And part of the learning process is understanding the reasons for the rejection. What are the arguments of the decision maker? Was there something you could have done differently, is there anything you could change in how you framed the solution?
Asking questions and clear feedback can sometimes get the decision maker to rethink their position, and at the very least, it should create a common vision for a process that can help move things forward. If you are open to working on your idea and collaborating with others to fix the issues you were presented with, leaders and managers may later commit and get on board.
Common mistakes to avoid when trying to sell an idea
We can learn a lot from our mistakes, but also from others’ mistakes. Communication and human interactions in the business context are very complex so identifying patterns that lead to failure is not so straightforward. Even so, there are still things you can pay attention to, to minimize risks and increase your odds of succeeding.
The idea conflicts with someone’s beliefs or interests
The steps you take before presenting your idea will help you determine who is directly affected by the changes you suggest. A good example for this is cloud computing.
When the concept was first presented to IT departments in many organizations, the idea didn’t fly because it could lead to new risks for them to worry about, and it threatened to diminish their power, and in some cases, even their jobs.
Instead, it was often finance or top management that saw the potential and only after that did the IT team get on board. We won’t go into all the details of this specific case, but you get the point. If you risk upsetting or threatening someone’s position, try a different approach.
Not listening to feedback
You’ve had this idea for a long time, and you think you figured it all out. Sometimes our biases stand in the way and affect our judgment. Not listening to feedback is a common mistake.
Decision makers might steer you in the right direction, or colleagues could suggest a different implementation method. But if you’re not open to feedback, or you can’t take criticism, then you can’t expect to succeed.
Luis Von Ahn, Duolingo's founder, had a childhood dream of opening a free gym that would harness the power of gym goers to generate electricity which would have been sold to power companies. Sounds good in theory but it turned out it was not a good idea. He learned that the math doesn’t work and that the business model was not effective. Luckily, he didn’t fall in love with his idea and could move forward to the next thing.
Making it “your” idea
As previously pointed out, a successful approach is collaboration. The point should be to improve something for the benefit of the organization. If it’s your idea and all about you and your benefit, you won’t get far.
This comes in line with the previous mistake: the reluctance to feedback. If you accept that your idea is not perfect, others can contribute to its development. Getting others on boards and giving them credit for their contribution will enhance their motivation and commitment. After all, this is what it means to be a good team player.
Helpful tools to sell your idea
Succeeding in selling your ideas depends on many factors. From the culture in your organization, to the preparation work you do, the effort you put in the pitch and of course, the idea itself.
Sometimes you need some guidance to identify the right steps, so we chose two tools we think can be useful in influencing others and getting the feedback and answers you’re after.
So, here are two tools you’ll find useful, with the mention that these are just an extra hand of help, that don’t cancel all the work you have to do on your own.
Get to yes framework
A method that can help you remove roadblocks, so in effect get a positive answer, is the “Get to Yes” framework developed by Steve Blank. This is simply a communication tool that can help you get the desired change. It’s mostly used by managers who need to get on board other stakeholders or teams that report to them.
How does it work in practice?
You use the Get to Yes form to request a change. In your case, you can adapt it for the idea you wish to implement and see what it needs to be changed in internal procedure to get approval.
The department receiving it has one week to gather information, evaluate risks, costs and impact of the proposition, then move forward with an approval form. The default answer is a Yes. A “No” requires detailed explanations which you can use as valuable feedback which points at things that need change in your idea.
The attitude influence diagram
The attitude influence diagram, or the Attitude-influence map was developed by John Carter, TCGen founder and the inventor of the Bose noise canceling headphones.
This tool can be used to address internal politics and neutralize them from early beginnings.
You simply think of all the people in the company that are important for the success of your project. Then, you write them down on the grid according to their attitude (positive, or negative) and their power in terms of knowledge, experience, organizational or all.
In the end, you should have a list of people that is of high influence but has a negative attitude. Try to understand why they resist change. Are they afraid of losing power? Do they understand the change? What other concerns of theirs can you address? You then need to find a way to get them on your side, and once you do, you’re closer to selling your idea.
If you listen to the Innovation Room Podcast where we talked with John Carter, you can learn how to better navigate these barriers.
Many people wait for the perfect moment to present their idea to management or other stakeholders. Unfortunately, the perfect moment might never come and as studies show, it’s better to act on your idea rather than postpone it.
The tactics and tools presented here can help you prepare, but you have to decide at some point to make the first step. If you feel like you did your best and you still got rejected, don’t give up.
As we have already mentioned, most famous innovators faced rejection after rejection. Their success is in large part a result of their resilience and persistence.
So, even if this might not have been the winning idea, go back to the drawing board, learn from the feedback and your mistakes and start the process over.
The more you try to improve your idea and the delivery process, and the more ideas you try to sell, the higher the chances are you will succeed. Look at your own process like you’re developing a product. Apply the same steps: build your hypothesis, validate your assumptions in the preparation work, test it within your circle, department, or business unit and learn from feedback.
By continuously working on this you will soon realize that not all ideas are worth pursuing and it’s very important to choose your battles.
Selling ideas internally is also what successful intrapreneurs know how to do. We recently wrote about what it takes to be an intrapreneur in your organization and also compiled a toolkit to help leaders and entrepreneurial-minded people to succeed with intrapreneurship.