How to Sell an Idea to Your Own Firm

This post contains a quick quiz that tests your ability to sell an idea to your own firm, along with some advice for moving your idea forward.

Instructions: Answer each question in the provided poll, then click on the link below the poll to get the correct answer

Question One: You've got a great idea that can help your firm become more successful and, in the process, advance your career. In order to make your idea into a reality, you'll need to sell it up the management chain. What's your first move?

  • #1: Sound out your boss. Surfacing the idea early will make it easier to develop it into something that the boss can eventually embrace.
  • #2: Share your idea with your peers. Since your idea is such a good one, you;ll need friends and allies to move the idea forward.
  • #3: Assess your own credibility. Confirm, in your own mind at least, that you have sufficient clout in the firm to move this idea forward.

Click HERE for the correct answer

The correct answer is #3: Assess your own credibility. Here's why.

Unless you're a plausible source, nobody's going to buy the idea from you, regardless of how good it is. The sad truth is that CEOs don't take corporate strategy tips from mailroom clerks, no matter how brilliant. So your first thought always has to be, am I the right person to be promoting this idea.

What if you're not that right person? Don't despair. You can still feed your idea to somebody else who has more credibility to up the line. Of course, you're not going to get full credit, but if that person is fair-minded there's a possibility she'll remember that you were the original source of the great idea. And that might be worth something in the long term.

And what if can't find somebody to carry the banner? Well, sorry, your idea, as good as it is, is dead on arrival.

Question Two: You've determined that you have the credibility to move the idea forward. Your first job is to convince your boss to let you work on developing the idea. What's the best way to proceed?

  • #1: Craft an elevator pitch. Boiling the idea down to a two-or-three sentence sales pitch will allow you to explain it quickly and simply.
  • #2: Research your boss's career. You'll be asking your boss to make a decision, so you need to know where your boss is coming from.
  • #3: Write a detailed proposal. Writing a formal document will convince the boss that your idea is viable and practical.

Click HERE for the correct answer

The correct answer is #2: Research your boss's career. Here's why.

Whenever you're asking somebody to make an important decision, there are three key questions:

  1. How does this individual perceive the problem I intend to solve?
  2. Does my idea conflict with any of this person's beliefs?
  3. How might my idea conflict with this person's interests?
If your idea is as great as you think it is, it will probably mean changes in the way that your group does things, or changes in your boss's role. And it will certainly mean changes in the way your boss interacts with you. Therefore, you need to understand where your boss is "coming from" before trying to pitch your idea.

For example, when I worked in a large computer company, I once tried to convince my manager that we should launch a software business separate from the hardware and services. Even though the idea made perfect sense from a market perspective (they are, indeed, three different businesses), he reacted very negatively.

It was only years later that I understood that his negativity came from the fact that his entire career had been built by blurring the lines between hardware and software, so that he could take credit for hardware sales that had nothing to do with the software he was responsible for promoting. My idea, in short, scared him spitless.

Question Three: You've approached your boss with your idea and gotten his go-ahead to develop it into something more substantial. What's your next move?

  • #1: Create a story about the idea. People are naturally going to wonder how your idea fits with what's already going on inside the firm, so you'd best have an explanation.
  • #2: Create a list of benefits. Good ideas have a positive financial impact. Since business decisions are all about the bottom line, make sure that you can articulate why your idea is so great.
  • #3: Mitigate the downside risks. Decision-makers want to know what they're getting into... before they make a decision. So make sure they know that you've figured out how to cover their behinds.

Click HERE for the correct answer

The correct answer is #1: Create a story about the idea.
People don't get excited about the facts behind an idea; they embrace the story that surrounds the facts. For the idea to be salable, it must make intuitive sense to the idea-buyer.

The best way to build such a narrative is to tie it to current events within your corporate environment. For example, did your firm just lose a big customer? Chances are boss is worried about a larger exodus-that's her worldview. So your idea should directly address the question of how to win customers back.

This isn't to say that a list of benefits and risk mitigation aren't important. You'll certainly need to have those ready. But those facts will be better received if they're in the context of a story that fundamentally makes sense to the organization.

Question Four: You've created a story that makes sense, and you've documented the benefits and mitigated the risks. Your boss seems happy with the results. What's your next move?

  • #1: Craft an elevator pitch. If you're going to sell this idea more widely, you'll need a two-or-three sentence sales pitch to explain it quickly and simply.
  • #2: Get a public commitment. Convince your boss to send out a memo or attend a meeting to discuss the idea.
  • #3: Write a detailed proposal. Now that you've gotten verbal approval, it's time to make it formal, with a powerful, well-written document.

Click HERE for the correct answer

The correct answer is #2: Get a public commitment.
From this point forward, most of what you'll be doing is building up consensus and support for your idea. To do this, you get as many decision-makers and stakeholders to make a public commitment to the idea, starting (of course) with your boss.

Once you've gotten enough of these people to make a public commitment, your idea starts to become real. People will begin to assume that your idea going to become part of the company's strategy. And if there is a final decision-maker, he or she will "sense" that the organization is behind the idea, which will make it much more likely for the idea to become official policy.

What about elevator pitches and detailed proposals?

Well, elevator pitches are really intended more for introducing people to a new firm and a new salesperson. When they're used internally, they just sound phony.

As for a detailed proposal... while you should be ready to provide documentation about benefits and risks and so forth, a suggestion that you go away and write a detailed proposal could very well be a "rock fetching" exercise.

Making the sale internally is going to depend on your ability to stretch your credibility and build consensus, not on your ability to write a fancy document.