Good ideas are everywhere today - as of October, Kickstarter projects alone had collected more than $3 billion dollars of pledges - and companies are trying to take advantage of the energy behind the idea economy by creating hackathons, incubators, accelerators, and even by bringing entrepreneurs in house.
But after leading multiple corporate innovation efforts, I can confidently say that coming up with the groundbreaking ideas is the easy part.
Many companies are designed to sniff out and kill risk by deploying corporate antibodies.
Many of these antibodies are necessary; they kill off projects that are really profit-eating viruses in disguise. But sometimes they start to attack their own hosts by interpreting all new ideas as threats to the system. You can’t just get rid of them, because they actually do an important job, when they function properly. But you have to find some way to get past them with ideas that can have a positive impact.
So how you do make your ideas antibody-resistant? How do you get people to see that their potential outweighs their risk?
I’ve faced this challenge many times during my career – from proposing new business models to inventing new customer experiences – and each time, it required facing the antibodies head-on.
Here are three ways I’ve managed to close the gap between good ideas and funding to give my proposals a fighting chance:
1. Strategically Evaluate and Position Your Idea
Experts agree that “building alliances” upward and across your company is critical to gaining buy-in. But a few obligatory “what’s in it for you” bullet points might not cut it, if you truly consider what you’re up against. Remember that executives can always choose something safer – like repurchasing stock, or even taking no action at all.
So that means it’s up to you to make sure your idea stacks up, not just against other ideas, but against all the alternatives your company could choose.
I was working on a new service experience that I knew had the potential to drive more loyalty than any other loyalty-related idea in my department. But when I took a broader company view, I realized my idea couldn’t compete with the 13% ROIC required to move it forward. When I dug even further, I uncovered the fact that the organization strongly preferred ideas that quantified customer lifetime value. But when I had both those pieces of inside knowledge, I was able to tweak my business case, improve my numbers, and get the approvals I needed.
Comparing your idea to all the ideas available may not change it, but it might change the way you position it. And that can mean the difference between a dead end and a new opportunity.
2. Reframe Risk as Something to Solve
Risk is never to be underestimated. When it comes to presenting a concept to the people who are responsible for making the numbers and enacting the execution, even the slightest appearance of risk can kill an idea. Because it’s not just the idea itself that has risk; it’s all the idea’s implications – and the costs associated with them.
And, on top of that, risk is sneaky; it can come in the form of lofty ROI-targets or as a well-intentioned operations manager – which happened to me at Target. I wanted to test a new service inside ten stores, which would require 10-15 minutes of a store employee’s time each day. When I met with the operations manager at HQ to get permission, she said: “Absolutely not. The store employees already have too much to do and this isn’t a priority.”
At this point, I could have argued my case with customer interview data to convince her my test should be a priority over other things. Instead, I simply asked, “What would have to be true for me to test this in a store?” After some thought, she laughingly said, “Well, you’d have to pay the employee’s hourly rate in every store you test, but that’s never been done.” That was the end of the conversation in her mind – but it was just the beginning in mine. Five minutes later, she was brainstorming with me, and several conversations later, we brokered a deal to test. This was a profound moment for me. Asking, “What would have to be true?” helped reframe risk as a problem to solve instead of as a request to approve or deny. It also turned someone who started as the personification of a corporate antibody into a helpful ally.
3. Tell a Succinct, but Compelling Story
Words matter. Visuals matter. As John Kotter from Harvard Business School points out in his book Buy-in: Saving Your Good Idea from Getting Shot Down, “The bigger the stakes, the more it’s worth taking the time to get it right.” In this case, high stakes mean the difference between a good or bad impression with an executive or key influencer that you may only see once.
In my experience, taking the time to get it right means creating the right narrative, with an antagonist (ex: an unmet consumer need) and a protagonist (your solution) starring in a compelling story – all set to beautiful imagery.
When it came to telling the story of a clothing consignment service I worked on, closets full of unworn clothes were my antagonist and a free bag with postage and pick-up included to donate and sell clothing was the protagonist.
But just framing the story the right way isn’t enough – you also have to prove it’s real. That means that the ingredients for your story should be rooted in research and insights that validate the problem, your idea, its benefit to customers, and its tangible value for your company.
In my example, I proved the antagonist was real with research that showed a third of women’s clothing purchases are never worn, and that, while people buy clothing as individual pieces, they discard it in bulk. To validate the protagonist, I ran real-store tests with customers, and used their testimonials, data, and NPS scores to prove the worth of the model.
So, in the end, your idea is only as good as the fight you put up on its behalf. And until companies start putting as much thought into nurturing and protecting ideas as they do into generating them, the onus is squarely on you to give your proposal the shot it deserves.
The trouble with all this is that it’s not easy to figure out how to strategically position your idea, reframe risk, and tell a compelling story on your own. It’s the kind of work that benefits from the concentrated focus of a team that’s used to thinking about ideas, projects, and problems from a lot of different angles.
That’s why we’ve developed a collaborative endeavor called Shift. It’s a one-day, super-focused experience designed to help you get past the hurdles that stand between your idea and the actions that will bring it to life.