Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Opinion | Why selling an idea to the boss or investor needs political skills

If you can find five colleagues who think your idea rocks, chances are your boss won’t dismiss it

Remember the last time you went with an idea to your boss and the idea was shot down immediately? It was squarely your fault. Innovation is a political process, in a way that the winning idea is not the best but is the one that is the most acceptable. Scores of employees and aspiring entrepreneurs naively assume that if their idea is good, people should listen to it. Well, no one has an obligation to listen to your idea. You have to earn it, all the time.

The survival of the most acceptable idea and not the best one is a logical extension of Darwinian principles to the sphere of innovation, or, more appropriately, the play out of the selfish gene in the corporate milieu. The gene in question is the idea and you are the host. If the idea is worthwhile, it will survive with or without you, but your best interest is in seeing the idea through, and that calls for political skills more than that of being a good scientist or an engineer.

One of bit of bad advice often handed out to inventors and innovators is: Build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. This doesn’t happen in reality, and that’s the reason 90% of new enterprises perish in their first year alone, and millions of employees are crushed under the weight of their own ideas across enterprises. If you make a better mousetrap, prove that it is indeed better. A great idea is mostly great in your head, and unless you make it great in your supervisor’s or investor’s head, they have no reason to be passionate about it. If you fail to generate excitement, you fail.

Here are some ways on how to navigate the political turf of innovation and emerge less frustrated.

Sell the problem first

Great ideas are pulled, not pushed. Start with the problem and take it to the level of an existential priority, and then your customers will likely seek the solution. Your idea becomes a by-the-way statement and sails almost effortlessly. The entirely new markets of hand sanitizers, bike rentals, air-purifiers, co-working spaces, craft beers, among others, stand on the backdrop of clearly identified problems. The money often goes to the one who sells the problem well and in advance, with Paytm being a case in point.

So, the next time you have to pitch a solution, start by making the gravity of the problem felt. Use scenarios, narratives, testimonials, empathy, or whatever else is at your disposal, and make the problem felt, and not just realized. Don’t assume that they all know the problem, or the gravity of the problem.

Never take an idea directly to your boss

Even if you have sold the problem well, don’t dare take your idea to the boss. Take it to your peers instead. Their feedback will help you refine your idea. The notion is, if you can’t impress your peers with your idea, what gives you the confidence that you can do that to a customer? Customers would be far more ruthless than your peers, since you are asking them to pay for the services.

In companies like Google and Amazon, there are clear guidelines on when to fund an idea and the appropriate team sizes. The dictum of “let a million flowers blossom" at Google, and “two-pizza teams" at Amazon encourages employees to seek peer reviews on their ideas, solicit early feedback, build a small team, and then ask for funding. If you can find five colleagues who think your idea rocks, chances are your boss won’t dismiss it. The key is to go laterally before going vertically with an idea.

Include all stakeholders

Innovation’s political nature gets accentuated the most when it comes to stakeholder management. Critical stakeholders can make or break your innovation, and often in unpredictable ways. It’s seldom a dyadic relationship between a buyer and a seller. There are complementors, substitutes, competitors, and regulators, apart from a whole host of internal and external parties that can put a spanner on your project’s progress. At the outset, ensure that you have mapped out the fears and desires of key stakeholders, however remotely they might get affected, and ensure they rally with your cause, or at least, do not feel alienated. This calls for political acumen and empathy, and that’s why every successful innovation has godfathers, often invisible ones.

In March, Ola had to face the wrath of the Karnataka transport department as the company failed to keep a check on the two-wheeler taxi services. Customers loved it, drivers made money, but one of the stakeholders wasn’t pleased. Eventually, the app-based cab aggregator was suspended from operating in Bengaluru for six months. Are you missing out on any critical stakeholder in your innovation planning? Don’t be naive and think your best intentions would win the day for you.

Innovation is a landmine leading to a gold mine. Learn to be politically astute.

Pavan Soni is the founder of Inflexion Point, an innovation and strategy consultancy.

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