One of the biggest complaints I hear from employees is that no one is listening to their ideas. In a large part this is not because the ideas are bad, but becuse most employees don’t sell their ideas to their company properly.

Selling an idea to an organization requires that you understand how the decision makers operate, then you cater your idea to the arcane decision-making process. So stop complaining about office politics and start leveraging them to sell your ideas.

A good example of how to sell an idea to an organization is this ad campaign run by the Center for Constitutional Rights. Whether or not you agree with the politics of the Center for Constitutional Rights, their approach is interesting:

“America’s leading group of constitutional attorneys present the case for impeachment of George W. Bush exactly as it could be presented by the House of Representatives to the U.S. Senate. Clearly and concisely, they delineate the four strongest charges against the president, citing precedence and evidence that you don’t have to be an attorney to comprehend.”

What is notable here is that the organization is trying to sell its idea by doing the work of the decision makers — in this case, the House of Representatives. This is the kind of campaigning you should do in your own organization. When you have an idea, sell from the perspective of the people who can make or break your outcome. Think about what obstacles would stand in the way for the decision maker, and then you do the work of making a plan to overcome them.

It is not easy to learn how to sell to an organization. Jeff Snipes, CEO of Ninth House, an online training company, told me that one of their most popular types of training is how to navigate the corporate process. “People need to learn to take an innovative idea and build a business plan around it.”

Snipes talked about skills to master in order to get your ideas implemented, and, no surprise, it’s all about emotional intelligence:

1. Solve a problem
The person who needs to give you approval has issues of her own. Everyone does. Getting someone to pay attention to your ideas is a sales issue. You are selling your idea. And the only way to sell something to someone is to solve a problem for them. You need to really understand the needs of the person you are trying to get approval from. And if you cannot figure out how you are helping that person, then you can’t really sell your idea to her.

2. Package your idea
You’ll get higher level people involved if your idea is aligned with the strategic ideas of the organization. In order to get people to buy in to your idea, you have to know what ideas they are focusing on themselves. You need to show them that you are presenting a plan to further their strategic goals.

3. Understand funding processes
Each organization has a different system for funding projects. But it’s safe to say that every system is arcane in its own way. You need to ask a lot of people in a lot of departments to find out the best way to get funding for your idea. If you rely on someone else to get funding, then you run the risk of not getting approval, because someone doesn’t want to deal with the financial implications of your idea. Taking care of a lot of this legwork and office politics yourself can go a long way toward getting approval.

While every company is different, the big-picture strategy for selling an idea is the same for most companies; A lot of rules hold true wherever you go. And even if you don’t end up getting someone to implement your idea, the experience of trying to sell an idea through a large organization is good experience in and of itself.

Sales is hard, and selling ideas is harder. But, like most things in life, you get good at it by trying and learning from failures. So try it.

14 replies
  1. Dave
    Dave says:

    One thing I’ve found is that ideas are easy, implementation is hard. Few ideas are truly new, what is new is if you can demonstrate how to actually make it happen within the organization without breaking something else or wasting resources. So don’t expect people to just say, “oh, wow, we never thought of that before.” More often, there are many unstated assumptions about why it cannot be done. You need to learn what those unstated assumptions are and solve for them; otherwise your great idea appears to fall on deaf ears.

    * * * * * * *

    This is a great point, Dave — worthy of a separate post, really. Because an idea that you don’t know how to implement is a pipe dream. Pipe dreams are great if it’s your own startup, but in a large company, the less it  sounds like a dream the easier it will be to sell.

    –Penelope

  2. Dave
    Dave says:

    If you are young, I think that the biggest obstacle to getting your ideas adopted is your own lack of a track record. Face it: Trust comes from Demonstrated Competence. If your idea contains much risk, the lack of a ‘been there, done that” t-shirt probably means that you won’t be taken seriously in most corporations. Tragic but true.

    * * * * * *

    Yes, this is true. But you have to start somewhere. And everyone’s gotta get their break. One way to get the break is to be good at selling an idea. Another way to get the break is to be good at networking and make someone like you enough to give you a chance. For best results, do both :)

    –Penelope

  3. AjiNIMC - Gmail a part of my personal nerve center
    AjiNIMC - Gmail a part of my personal nerve center says:

    One of the task I do is handling innovation centers (around 7 by now). This is to shorten the distance between idea, source and the heads. Innovation centers is visible to everyone and people can buy other’s ideas. If your idea is picked by any team then you are nominated for innovation awards. I am also planning for a count or a score for each team member. This will highlight the smarter. A lot to write but at work.

  4. Hunter Arnold
    Hunter Arnold says:

    These are great steps. The company I work for holds an annual competition that solicits new business ideas. The process is open – anyone can participate. And the process quite similar to what you’ve outlined – the employee solves a problem by proposing a new revenue stream, goes through rounds of interviews and competition to package and sell their ideas to executives, and learns about project funding by actually leading the implementation of the winning business idea. Those who don’t win still have the advantage of exposing themselves to our executive team and having worked through a business plan start to finish. The experience of thinking through and presenting an idea will pay off when you’re expected to come up with and be held accountable for ideas further down the line in your career.

    * * * * * *

    That’s so cool that your company does that, Hunter. You should tell everyone the name of the company — good place to look for a job.

    –Penelope

  5. DeanW
    DeanW says:

    Dave’s comment is indeed true. And, there are ways around the “new/young/inexperienced” label. Find an innovative mentor. As a Boomer in his 40s, I can tell you that I invite fresh ideas and often lend my personal credibility as back-up to a younger, less experienced person’s great idea. Here’s a key point: only when there is a tipping point of buy-in do I explain fully that the credit is due to the younger person. (This should be agreed upon by both of you beforehand, so s/he knows how they will earn credibility with your help, and that you are NOT going to take credit for their brilliance. It helps if they can attend the meeting where the final buy-in will take place, so you can introduce and credit them appropriately.)

    You see, some of us Boomers and others aren’t really stale and uninterested. Like Millennials, Xers and Ys, we may be frustrated with the insideous business-as-usual thinking we face daily, adn so we welcome fresh thinking from people closer to the action outside of our bureaucracy…people who interact, communicate, experience life differently from us. People with less corporate baggage and history weighing them down. Yeah, we need you.

    BTW, Ryan Healy’s post “Twentysomething” on Brazen Careerist offers great ideas for a better workplace for all…not just twentysomethings.

    – Dean

  6. DeanW
    DeanW says:

    Well, speaking of credibility…next time I’ll spell check better for “and” and “insidious.”

  7. M
    M says:

    I think managers need to do a better job listening to their employees rather than the employees having to learn how to talk to them. If a company isn’t willing to listen to my ideas, I give up. I shouldn’t have to work to hard to provide ideas that make the company better.

  8. nate
    nate says:

    I work for a car dealership that wants to increase their sales by 40 car per month…the company’s goal is to sell 200 cars but we have never hit it under the leadership we ar4e under…I have done really well with sells and they will not listen to the ideas that will get them to the 200 and it’s right berfore their faces…and I can see it but they can’t and will not listen…

  9. Chris Hansen
    Chris Hansen says:

    This is an excellent post and advice.

    The only thing I would add is, understand how to talk about Value. Every company (and I mean EVERY company) interprets this differently. Some use KPI’s, some use feelgood support. understand how to talk in terms of Value as the company sees it, and you will have a better shot than most at getting your idea off the ground.

  10. c.s.parmar
    c.s.parmar says:

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