I received a thought-provoking email this week from an aspiring physician intrapreneur (someone who seeks to undertake entrepreneurial activities inside an organization or larger business), that read:
"I’m looking to start a new business line in my existing organization. The start-up costs are nominal (less than $200k), but the line is specific to my specialty. Since I’m the only one in the organization with the specialty, I have to convince the “powers that be” of the worthiness of the endeavor. I’m fairly certain I will be successful at it, but I’m always in the market for salesmanship tips to help my presentation."
This inquiry got my marketing juices going, because I now understand that an idea gets traction NOT necessarily because of its inherent worthiness, but because it is presented in such a way as to conclusively answer the basic question of "What's In It For Me/Us?" (also called the WIIFM/U question)
In the Fast Company online magazine issue of June 2004, Seth Godin (one of my delightfully contrarian marketing heroes) wrote an article called The Best Things in Life are Free in which he says the following, on the topic of persuading the higher-ups about the merits of your idea or product (I've excerpted one main point and added my own emphasis):
My Boss Won't Let Me! (How To Make Something Happen)
If you decide you want to make something great, more often than not your organization will follow you. And if it doesn't, there are a hundred organizations waiting for you that will. I call the person who makes an innovation happen a champion. And without a champion, nothing happens.
My goal is to sell you on your ability to champion an innovation in your organization. And then to do it again. No free prize lasts forever, which is why it's essential that we get better at making new ones.
Guess what? There's no correlation between how good your idea is and how likely your organization will be to embrace it. None. It's not about good ideas. It's about selling those ideas and making them happen. If you're failing to get things done, it's not because your ideas suck. It's because you don't know how to sell them.......
Without a champion navigating these obstacles, most projects will slow down and eventually stop. Someone who cares too little won't put in the effort to overcome the obstacles; she'll give up and walk away. The forces of mediocrity will band together to water down your innovation. They'll try to make it more popular, easier to understand, easier to build, easier to fit within the existing retail/factory/media business model. Well-meaning folks will water down your edgy idea into something safer, without realizing that their contribution makes the idea riskier. (Riskier? Yes, because now it's less remarkable.)
Champions turn "no" into "yes." Champions understand that the internal sales process is at least as important as the idea itself. Champions are able to bring together all of the elements they need to turn a soft innovation into a free prize, creating a remarkable product that reaches the market and potentially transforms an industry......
To get leverage from your organization, you'll need its willing help. Regardless of what you do and whom you do it with, the steps to generating leverage remain the same. As people consider your idea, they will ask themselves three questions:
Is it going to be successful?
Is it worth doing?
Is this person able to champion the project?
If the answer to any of these questions is a resounding no, it's unlikely your project will happen. Understanding how the three pieces fit together and what to do about them is a big part of choosing the right project and getting it done. Remember, these people don't care one bit about what your answers to these three questions might be. What matters is what they think the answers are, based on the evidence you give them.
If you think you're stuck because "my boss won't let me," what's really happening is that she has decided that the answer to at least one of these three questions is no.
The goal is to go through the steps necessary for your colleagues to believe (because they want to believe). It's an emotional ticket you need stamped, not an intellectual one. Here's a partial grab bag of tactics that will work some of the time for some champions:
Ask questions, don't give answers. Please don't think you have to know all the answers. You don't. You just need the posture of a champion and the guts to ask hard questions. My first real job involved informally managing 40 world-class software engineers in a bet-the-company launch of five major new software products. Everyone knew that I couldn't possibly have a point of view when it came to engineering issues, so they were happy to have me kibitz. I spent my entire day going from one team to another, asking questions.
Ask obligating questions. Generally, it's a bad idea to answer objections. If you spend all your time answering one objection after another, sooner or later the people you're selling to will find an objection you can't answer. Better to answer the objection with a question. Keep working your way backward until you uncover the actual problem--not the symptom of the problem.
Then, before you try to answer the objection associated with the real problem, take two more shots. First ask, "If we can solve this problem, can you see any other reason not to move ahead?" This obligates the person to speak up or put up. It means that the objection you're going to tackle is the real problem, not a stalling tactic. Second, work to get them on your side. "If I could convince you that solving this problem was really important, how would YOU do it?" (get the potential objectors to become co-conspirators instead - part of the solution!)
Build a prototype. The first time you see Reebok Travel Trainers, or the Segway, or the iPod, or the Nokia music phone, you "get it." But until you see it and hold it, it's merely a concept, a flaky idea, something that may (or may not) happen. A prototype makes it concrete. To hold it makes it possible, makes it likely, and reinforces your role as the champion, the owner of the vision.
Prototypes also help us get over our desire to make it perfect before we start. If it's easy to make one prototype, it's easy to make a hundred. Each prototype gets better, more useful, more real.
Walk into a meeting with a key power broker. Announce you have a prototype in your case. That's all she wants to see. Now you have her. Take your time. Lay out the vision. Then let her hold it. Put it on her desk. Leave it on her desk!
As the days go by, people will pass by her desk, see the prototype, and ask about it. As each person gets more and more excited about this cool innovation, word spreads. It becomes a reality. All that's left is to actually make it.
- What questions should this physician be asking PRIOR to making the convincing case for the new service?
- What might a "prototype" of a new service line or business look like in a healthcare setting? In what creative ways could he "represent" the new idea?
One great resource I turn to for the specifics of creating top-notch compelling and cool presentations (the actual events that are designed to illustrate and back-up your argument and claims) is the blog Presentation Zen written by the ever so stylish Garr Reynolds. He writes blog posts such as Presentations and The Law of Simplicity and From Design to Meaning: A Whole New Way of Presenting.
Finally, I'm in the middle of a new book by Dan and Chip Heath, called Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, which is rich in ideas and techniques for making your ideas and concepts unforgettable (the six key principles are Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotions and Stories). I'll blog about what I've discovered once I've finished reading the book. I am also convinced that this book will develop the stature of The Tipping Point, Blink and A Whole New Mind!! I know it's THAT kind of book when I have it at my bedside, instead of a novel, and I can't wait to get to it for some fun pre-snooze reading.