Moving your great ideas forward requires approval and buy-in from management. This can either be frustrating or terrifying, depending on your level of confidence. And even when know your proposed change would benefit the company and grow your department, you’re aware that risk-averse teams might shut you down in favor of staying in their comfort zone.
With the right tools, however, it’s possible to push upper management out of their comfort zones. Here’s how anyone — from entry-level employees to VPs — can get buy-ins from their bosses to create change.
Persuading Management With Confidence
It’s perfectly normal to get nervous talking to executives. They’re often in a hurry, and it can be intimidating to ask for change or additional resources.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t pitch your ideas confidently.
Brendan Reid compares many employees to wet noodles when they talk to management: They’re so concerned about being respectful and following the organizational chart that they bend to the point of not getting what they want. Furthermore, they let their views change quickly if they think it matches what their managers want.
Reid encourages employees to take a stand and defend their beliefs by backing them up with data and information. It’s OK to bend to management's vision, but you don’t have to cave.
“Success as a manager or employee usually has less to do with your degree, your natural talent or even your intelligence,” writes Bruce Clarke, president and CEO of Capital Associated Industries, Inc. “It has much more to do with your own personal level of persistence and determination.”
In his writing, Clarke encourages people to keep speaking up and lobbying for what they want. Those who give up whenever they’re told “no” will never move their agendas forward and will struggle to get noticed by the company.
Middle Managers Need to Create a Culture of Innovation
Before you can start pushing management out of the comfort zone, you have to know what you’re getting them into. George Ambler illustrates those options with a target chart that breaks down the three places within a company that a leader can reside:
● The Comfort Zone: This is the status quo, where leaders spend most of their time.
● The Learning Zone: This is where leaders push the boundaries of their expertise to learn more and grow from their mistakes or successes.
● The Danger Zone: This is where the leader is stretched too thin and taking too many risks.
Using Ambler’s model, you can better understand the importance of teamwork within a company. If everyone approaches management with new ideas and projects, it’s easy to push them into the danger zone. By working together and prioritizing change, you can move management outside of their comfort zone without pushing too far.
John Marcante’s Story
Often, it’s up to middle management to encourage employees to innovate. Without leaders paving the way, entry-level employees will take Reid’s “wet noodle” approach to pitching ideas, and upper management will stay in their comfort zones as much as they can.
John Marcante, CIO of Vanguard, says the age of the company and the industry don’t correlate to innovation. He believes that change is 70 percent culture and 30 percent technology. By studying how Silicon Valley companies are more nimble and innovative, he creates a culture of change within his company. Interestingly, the “scare tactic” approach seems to work as a motivator within Vanguard.
“We are never complacent,” he says. “It is drilled in our heads to be paranoid.” It’s this fear of falling behind that keeps them constantly moving beyond their comfort zones.
Understanding Management’s Motivation
One of the first steps in moving people out of their comfort zones is understanding why they’re stuck there in the first place.
“Some people are meant to stay in their comfort zones,” Angela Cochran writes. “They do great work and are extremely dependable. What they lack is a need to advance. For others, it’s more of a paralyzing fear of change.”
Interestingly, it might be easier to approach management that is paralyzed by fear than upper-level teams who are content with maintaining the status quo. This is because people who are content might be hostile to those who want to rock the boat, yet people who are afraid of failing will do whatever it takes not to. In the case of Vanguard, Marcante says the risks of staying put are greater than the rewards of stepping out of your comfort zone as a motivator to move forward.
Implementing Idea Management Within Your Team
Once you know what motivates people, you can start to introduce ideas that speak to their problems.
Jeffrey Fermin at The Vision Lab describes the concept of idea management and how a steady flow of ideas can create a culture of innovation and change. “When people are passionate about what they do, it will only spark more ideas and greater innovation,” he writes. “It is up to your organization to make sure that people can give ideas without any hesitation.”
This is where managing turns into leading. By fostering an environment of respect and listening, managers can encourage employees to contribute without fear of getting shot down — or worse, having their ideas co-opted and presented as someone else’s.
Tailoring Your Requests to Management’s Ears
Managers are swamped with questions, requests and problems all day. Part of the reason you might not feel like you’re heard is because it sounds as if you’re just adding another problem to the pile.
“We always want to believe that our problems need immediate resolutions,” Ryan Creamore writes. “The first step in achieving your desired outcome is to remember not to bring problems; bring solutions.”
When you present management with solutions, you’re really asking their permission to move forward with the plan that you think is best. You’re growing in your role as a manager, while the actual management team acts as guiding hand, not like someone who is directly involved.
Guerric de Ternay agrees and encourages readers to understand what management wants and to frame their requests in a way that supports the company.
He presents remote working as an example. It’s hard to sell your boss on the idea of remote work if you mostly want to skip your commute and wear pajamas all day. However, if your boss is worried about an early-morning call with a vendor in a different time zone, they might be open to the idea of your working remotely if it means you can take that call. Your goals are achieved by solving the problems of your bosses.
The FORTH Method
As you develop your requests and asks for management, it helps to create a plan for approaching them at the right time. Gijs van Wulfen developed one strategy you can use that actually limits management’s involvement to the beginning and the end of the process, called the FORTH method. These five steps are ideal in getting management’s initial buy-in then its full approval:
● Full Steam Ahead: Understanding the scope of a project and getting stakeholder buy-in.
● Observe and Learn: Developing a deep understanding of what the project needs.
● Raise Ideas: Brainstorming ideas to accomplish the challenge in an actionable list.
● Test Ideas: Evaluating what customers and employees think about your plan.
● Homecoming: Get internal support for resources and implementation.
Compare this process with the advice Creamore and de Ternay gave about coming up with solutions instead of problems. Upper management is typically involved in the beginning to get the go-ahead to move forward, and then again at the end when you have a finished plan for them to approve.
As a manager, this gives you autonomy to develop solutions with your team and then present them in a way that gets approval.
Collaboration As a Persuasion Tool
Joel Garfinkle, author of Getting Ahead, emphasizes the role of collaboration in getting support for your ideas.
“When you want to introduce a new strategy, schedule a series of one-on-ones with different people within the company — or even outside the company if that’s appropriate,” he writes. “Incorporate what input you can, and you’ll stand a good chance of gaining their buy-in.”
However, this is just the first step. The next step is throwing your support behind the initiatives of others.
By backing your co-workers in their initiatives and helping them when you can, you are more likely to win their support later on. This creates a strong web in which everyone builds each other up instead of treating management’s attention like a pie that has to be divided up.
Putting Your Best Presentation Forward
One you have the platform and confidence to present your ideas, you can focus on your presentation ability and tools. This requires a mixture of great data and a clear presentation to convey your message clearly and professionally.
Tap Into Imagery to Persuade
In 1986, university professors Richard E. Petty and John Cacioppo developed the Elaboration-Likelihood Model (ELM) for persuasion. Essentially, the model suggests people learn through a pair of routes:
● A central route that handles facts and pros/cons of a decisions;
● and a peripheral route that relies upon visuals to process a message.
Both play a factor in decision-making.
David Sands at Adoreboard explains that this is where data visualization comes in. While management might listen centrally to what you’re saying, peripheral visuals will help fortify your case.
“Part of the difficulty of introducing a new idea is ensuring that your audience understands just what it is you’re trying to get across,” writes Anett Grant, president and founder of Executive Speaking, Inc. “Given how much thought you’ve put into your idea, it can be frustrating when someone else isn’t getting onboard and doesn’t see the value or even understand what you mean.”
She recommends using imagery — mock-ups, charts or photographs — to help people get onboard with the overall vision. Even if management isn’t able to understand the pitch you're making, they can take in visual cues and infer what you want from them.
Highlight Incremental Value
“Show how your idea is better than the existing standard,” Sarah Schmidt writes at MarketResearch.com. This might mean pulling case studies from other companies who have gone before you or mapping out estimated incremental value.
Alternatively, you can use the scare tactic of mapping out what the company has to lose if management doesn’t take action. How will it make your company lose money? How long will it take you to catch up as an innovator?
If your team doesn’t respond to potential revenue opportunities because they’re comfortable with their current growth plan, highlighting this lost revenue can help tap into the fear factors discussed earlier. Today’s failure to innovate can be tomorrow’s impediment to growth.
Be Brief, Be Clear
Maurice DeCastro, author of Hamster to Harmony: Get Off the Wheel and Live Your Best Life!, emphasizes brevity and clarity when pitching to upper management.
Should you have an answer for all of their questions and have a thorough plan? Absolutely. But you should present the big picture with your thought-out plans tucked to the side as reference.
Upper management is looking for big-picture change and will typically only want more detail if they need to address a concern before moving forward.
At first, your management team will not like getting pushed out of their comfort zone. The risk to their careers and the company might be too high to agree to your ideas. However, with the right mixture of persuasion techniques and persistence, you can work to foster a culture of strategic risk and innovation to move the needle forward.