“There is one thing stronger than all the armies of the world,” wrote Victor Hugo. “And that is an idea whose time has come.” Perhaps. But Hugo probably never met an army of middle managers.
Good ideas are challenging precisely because they are good. A good idea means change. And change is both frightening and a threat to the established order. Where some see opportunity, others see uncertainty. If you’ve ever visited your local bureau of motor vehicles and wondered why things there run the way they do, you have experienced this phenomenon.
Human beings are, by nature, creatures of habit. We are risk-averse. We talk about our “comfort zones,” and we like things that are “safe.” In the world of business, both big and small things that are “tried and true” are valued. In the often-confusing world of technology, the maxim is that “you can never go wrong buying IBM.” Why? Because it’s “tried and true.”
In 1956, William H. Whyte wrote “The Organization Man,” which described how people not only worked for organizations but how they belonged to them as well. Whyte noted the disparity between the mythic American “ideal of the individual” and 20th-century American reality, where individuality was actually a handicap, and conformity the way to get promoted in one’s career. As they say in Washington, D.C., “you gotta go along to get along.” To return to the matter at hand, new ideas are stifled because they challenge the existing order of things.
Whyte writes that for the organization man, “It is not a case of whether he should fight against black tyranny or blaze a new trail against patent stupidity. That would be easy — intellectually, at least. The real issue is far more subtle. For it is not the evils of organization life that puzzle him, but it’s very beneficence. He is imprisoned in brotherhood.” In short, corporate conformity is not conducive to creativity. And any business that actively douses the creative spark of its most valuable asset — the employee — will find itself operating in the dark.
Nowhere is this more insidious than in large organizations where a good idea can get swiftly and completely buried before anyone has a chance to recognize its potential. This group can claim as members not only Fortune 1000 companies, but also government at all levels and our institutions of higher education. People simply are not encouraged to suggest and pursue new ideas that might change the existing order of things — suggestion boxes notwithstanding.
Innovations of any kind — particularly those that involve spending money — are difficult to move up the chain of command. Those managers “in the trenches” who recognize the need for change and seek out and discover new ideas, are then faced with the daunting task of “selling” management on the benefits of change and assuaging them relative to the risks involved — because no change happens minus a degree of risk.
So, how can the dedicated middle manager successfully sell her idea “upstream”? The first part of the successful equation is the ability to clearly explain why change is even necessary. As simple as this sounds, most requests for change — and the accompanying request for funds — arrive with more enthusiasm than understanding.
So, the first step in the quest of selling change is to do your homework. Before you are asked — as you surely will be — ask yourself the tough questions and develop detailed answers. Be your own toughest critic. It’s also a useful exercise to engage the services of a similarly minded colleague to play devil’s advocate. Focus on benefits, not features. And the toughest question — the one that, insidiously, is often never asked but always pondered — is “why rock the boat?”
If you cannot answer this question with passion and detail, your best intentions will be for naught.
The second step is to find allies both inside and beyond your own department. Think outside your silo. An idea that negatively impacts other areas is a bad idea. Better yet — understand how your idea will enhance the operations of your colleagues. This is particularly important in today’s environment of tight budgets. Change, in this respect, must be maximized.
Remember, change isn’t only about doing old things in a new, better way, it is also — in fact, primarily — about doing new things. That is a very powerful argument for at least considering adaptation of your new idea. But don’t let blue-sky visions of the future morph into science fiction. Focus first on the short-term benefits and then allude and entice decision-makers with the future potential your idea would make possible. Don’t bring up the notion of “systemic change.” It is frightening, threatening – and probably not relevant to the conversation. Stay focused.
Needless to say — but worth saying anyway — timing is crucial. While there is never a perfect time to recommend a new idea, there are certainly some ill-advised ones. Remember, your “new idea” is someone else’s “new expense.” Also, on the issue of time – give yourself plenty of it. What may seem a no-brainer to you may require weeks or months to approve.
Avoid too much pride. Early on in the process stop considering it “your idea.” It’s not personal. It’s strictly business. Better yet, find someone in upper management and make it his or her idea. Sometimes acceptance of a new methodology is as much a factor of the messenger as of the message.
Finally, don’t be dogmatic. Change is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Small movement in the right direction is the beginning of momentum. Small victories are better than explosive defeats. Be wary of the perfidious “maybe.” Consider it permission to redouble your efforts. Be patient but be persistent. And remember the words of Plutarch, “Time is the wisest of all counselors.”