How to Sell Your Ideas

Trying to sell your ideas within a corporation isn’t always easy. You have to contend with politics, egos, bureaucracy, and other assorted barriers.

With that in mind, I put together the following information a couple of years ago for my team. Some of it is influenced by Seth Godin’s book Free Prize Inside, which lists lots of great idea promotion techniques.


  • This is not about how to come up with great ideas
  • This is about how to promote your ideas
  • Your job is to come up with great, viable, & successful ideas

Ideas Are Easy

  • There are a million great ideas out there
  • There are a million bad ideas out there too
  • Lots of websites give you free ideas almost every day
  • People at your company may be bursting with ideas already (maybe)
  • Your company’s problem isn’t generating ideas, it’s choosing which ones to implement
  • Your problem isn’t how to sell your idea, it’s getting your idea through the clutter of other ideas

Be an Idea Champion

Understand People & Politics

  • Understand the other person’s point of view of life, frame of mind
    • Consider the person’s background, culture, social standing, economic status, religion, family, ethnicity, etc.
    • Consider personality typing tools (Jung, Myers-Briggs, Keirsey)
    • Be aware of non-verbal communication & cues
  • Understand the other person’s goals & motivations
    • Be aware of what the pesson wants from life, from you, or from this particular deal. What matters to this person? Money, fame, reputation, a promotion, etc?
  • Find out who the true influencers are; these aren’t always the top executives (though usually they are); sometimes, it can also be a project manager or a low-level product manager, or even an administrative assistant
    • E.g. The executives of a major company wanted innovation. Unfortunately, below them were some senior managers who were afraid of upsetting the status quo and hurting their stock options because they were already making a fortune on them. They wouldn’t let any new ideas through if they hurt the status quo. These senior managers were the true influencers, not the top executives. A way to approach them is to understand their motivations and show that, by not embracing this idea, the status quo would be broken because competitors would do it better.

Convince Others That Your Idea is Great

  • Not just good, but great
  • Do some research and gather statistics to back-up the potential success of your idea
  • Show them your vision, describe the future where your idea is a reality
  • Tell them the emotional impact of your idea, get them energized about it
  • The goal is not to prove beyond a doubt that your idea will work; that may be impossible to prove. The goal is to go through the necessary steps for your colleagues to believe that your idea will work
  • Understand what motivates people (which ties into politics)
    • Some want a cool challenge
    • Some like the geek factor of new technology
    • Some like being the first-to-market
    • Some want to push the stock price up
    • Some like making their own jobs more secure
    • Some want to make the world a better place
    • Some want public recognition

Convince Others That You Can Make This Happen

  • Build your reputation as a leader, an Idea Champion
  • Start small (plan a small event, like a team lunch)
  • Increase your responsibilities (take on increasingly more difficult tasks)
  • Take ownership of difficult, complex problems (own them from identification to resolution)
  • Be proactive about problem-solving (if you notice a problem happening frequently that no one else has identified yet, step up to find a solution)
  • Consider volunteering to champion someone else’s idea (to help prove yourself and gain a political ally)
  • Consider learning about project management, marketing, engineering lifecycles, etc; (give yourself the right skills to see your idea through)

Good luck, champ!

You’re Not Your Job Title

“You’re not how much money you’ve got in the bank. You’re not your job. You’re not your family, and you’re not who you tell yourself.”
– C. Palahniuk

Tired of being a peon? Looking to get a promotion or more responsibilities? Or something bigger and better in your career?

The first step is to realize that you are not your job title.

That’s right, you’re not. Don’t let it define you and what you can do.

So your title says you’re a “developer,” yet you really want to be a bigger part of your team? Then don’t just write code all day long. Offer product suggestions, marketing ideas, and UI design feedback.

But don’t just spew out any ole’ thing that comes to your mouth. Having a lot of poorly thought out suggestions doesn’t help anymore. “We should make the navigation blue.” “Why?” “Because I want to be a bigger part of the team, and I really like blue.”

Nope. You’ve got to offer helpful suggestions. The best way to do this is to learn more about the product and understand the business.

A product director once gave me this advice: “Think of yourself as the CEO.

That’s good advice. You start to see things differently when you think of yourself as the top person in charge. Now you have to worry about your customers, your competitors, the market, your expenses, your balance sheet, your team dynamics, etc.

This helps frame your suggestions. It’s not about making the navigation blue anymore, it’s about doing what’s best for the customer, while weighed against the strengths of your company vs your competitors and the market trends.

It’s not easy to do this. There are all sorts of barriers, from insecure colleagues who’ll feel threatened by your initiative, to the fear of making big mistakes with decisions with which you have little experience.

It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible. Go ahead and take the initiative anyways. If others feel threatened by you and try to sabotage your progress, what’s the worst that could happen? They fire you? Then I’d argue that your team had the wrong dynamic for you anyways, and that you should have just quit.

Frightened? Think of your mistakes as learning lessons. They’ll be much more valuable than what you can get out of a book, you know. You can also hedge your bets by soaking up knowledge and advice from more experienced people that you admire, like role models.

But make sure you realize that not all of your suggestions will be taken. You’re thinking like the CEO, but you’re not the CEO. At the end of the day, the actual CEO is the person entrusted to make the right decisions for the business. You’re at the company because you trust the CEO to do that.

Decisions shouldn’t be made by consensus; there will be many decisions with which you don’t agree. And you’ll make many suggestions that which others will not agree. At the end of the day, it’s more important to make some decision and move forward all together. That’s part of thinking like a CEO.

If you don’t like it, quit and join another company. Or start your own!

Until then, remember: You are not your job title. Think of yourself as the CEO. And soon you’ll be moving on to bigger and better places in your career!

Focus On Strengths, Manage Around Weaknesses

It is more effective to invest in building strengths and working around weaknesses.

People are able to improve their strengths faster than they can their weaknesses. Why?

  • People generally have an affinity for their strengths
  • An affinity means a stronger motivation for using that strength
  • Increased usage leads to an improved strength (practice makes perfect)

For a manager, this means that the ROI of the time & effort spent on building a strength is greater than the ROI spent on building a weakness.

A weakness, in this definition, is not a trainable skill or piece of knowledge. Those can be learned and corrected. A weakness here means an innate inability to perform some part of the job well and cannot be corrected through training.

Since weaknesses hurt the employee and even their team, managers should find ways to work around those weaknesses. How?

  • Provide tools and processes to counteract the weakness
  • Partner the employee with another who has complimentary skills
  • Put the employee into a different role where the weakness is no longer a detriment

Let’s look at this concept pictorially. The chart below is a representation of Mr. Employee’s skills:

Skill Levels

If Mr. Employee was asked to build Skill C, one of his strengths, here is how it would increase over three periods of time:

Skill Levels: Increasing Strengths

However, if Mr. Employee was asked to build Skill D, one of his weaknesses, here is how it would increase over three periods of time:

Skill Levels: Increasing Weaknesses

This doesn’t mean that weaknesses shouldn’t be addressed, especially if they are a detriment to the employee’s ability to do the job. Weaknesses can be managed around, with this kind of a result:

Skill Levels: Managed Weaknesses

Now let’s take a look at an example:

Andrew is a manager of an IT consultancy. He notices that one of his consultants, Brian, has memorized the statistics for every Major League Baseball team. Andrew realizes that Brian has a strength in memorizing facts. So he builds that strength by training Brian to memorize all the facts about IT software.

Brian, however, is prone to impatience and some clients have complained about his pushy behavior. Interpersonal skills training hasn’t helped. Andrew realizes that Brian has a weakness in working with sensitive customers.

So he manages around that weakness by partnering Brian with Chris, another consultant who is great at talking to his clients, but doesn’t comes across as an expert because he has trouble memorizing all the facts about IT software. Chris’ strength is in making small talk and putting his clients at ease. He’s also grown a lot from interpersonal skills training because he finds such training fascinating.

After pairing Brian and Chris together, Andrew notices with glee that their combined efforts increase client satisfaction significantly. Andrew has successfully improved the strengths of his consultants and managed around their weaknesses.

Mindset: The Effort Effect

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success Last month, Guy Kawasaki wrote about Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford. In the Stanford Magazine article by Marina Krakovsky, “The Effort Effect“, Dweck explores why “a really capable child [gives] up in the face of failure, [while] other children [are] motivated by the failure.”

Her field studies in learned helplessness and attribution theory led her to launch a new field of educational psychology: achievement goal theory.

In short, there are people who believe they have a fixed mental capacity (known as a “fixed mindset”) and there are people who believe they can always learn new things (known as a “growth mindset”). A person with a fixed mindset, even highly capable ones who are already highly intelligent, don’t try as hard as those with a growth mindset and therefore don’t excel as well. Dweck’s new book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, goes into more detail about these conclusions and offers parenting tips as well, since her field studies were conducted mostly on elementary school children.

Guy, useful as ever, cites some of Dweck’s tips and adds the word “employee” to show how they are relevant to business and management:

Listen to what you say to your kids [employees], with an ear toward the messages you’re sending about mind-set.

Instead of praising children’s [employee’s] intelligence or talent, focus on the processes they used.

Example: “That homework was so long and involved. I really admire the way you concentrated and finished it.”
Example: “That picture has so many beautiful colors. Tell me about them.”
Example: “You put so much thought into that essay. It really makes me think about Shakespeare in a new way.”

When your child [employee] messes up, give constructive criticism—feedback that helps the child [employee] understand how to fix the problem, rather than labeling or excusing the child.

Pay attention to the goals you set for your children [employees]; having innate talent is not a goal, but expanding skills and knowledge is.

Don’t worry about praising your children [employees] for their inherent goodness, though. It’s important for children [employees] to learn they’re basically good and that their parents love them unconditionally, Dweck says. “The problem arises when parents praise children [employees] in a way that makes them feel that they’re good and love-worthy only when they behave in particular ways that please the parents.

The Missing “I”

You know what really grinds my gears? People who drop the “I” in sentences.

It’s especially common among executives and high-level managers, as if they expect you to know that everything they say is – of course – about them.

For example, here’s a request for a meeting: “Want to get together for a meeting.”

It sounds like a question, but it’s really a declaration. In proper English, it would read: “I want to get together for a meeting.”

Here are more examples taken from actual situations:

  • “Interested in that CPM vs CPC comparison.”
  • “Like idea of adding extra modules to page.”
  • “Agree with John – nice job on sales call.”
  • “Only concern is the light gray text is too subtle.”
  • “Have to take a poop.”

Well, that last one isn’t an actual example, but I can very well imagine an executive saying that. Or, rather:

Can very well imagine an executive saying that.

ScienceDaily Week by Guy Kawasaki

ScienceDaily Last week, Guy Kawasaki ran a series of posts that highlighted choice bits from ScienceDaily. This online magazine (ezine?) aims to be The Source for the latest research news in science, technology, and medicine, by including stories “submitted by leading universities and other research organizations around the world.” Guy notes that their studies have implications on business practices as well.

So with that, Guy highlights:

Which is more effective: bonuses or raises?

For example, have you ever wondered whether giving employees a pay-for-performance bonus or a merit raise fosters greater productivity? According to this “Bonuses Boost Performance 10 Times More Than Merit Raises” in Science Daily which pointed to a Cornell study called “Using Your Pay System to Improve Employees’ Performance: How You Pay Makes a Difference” by Dr. Michael C. Sturman, a bonus yields far better results.

Interesting! Same probably goes for commission-based compensation too.

Hype Kills

…assistant professor Vanessa Patrick (University of Georgia) [and] co-authors Debbie MacInnis and C. Whan Park (University of Southern California) [published the study] “Marketing: Too Much Hype Backfires.” The study shows that “people take notice when they feel worse than they thought they would, but—oddly—not when they feel better than expected.”

This supports the old adage that people tell five others about a bad experience but only one about a good experience (“negative evangelism”?). Thus, it sure looks like “under promising and over delivering” is the way to go.

It’s well-known that losing something creates a stronger emotion than winning something, so I guess human beings are wired to feel negative emotions moreso than positive emotions?

Advertising and Sexy Content

…advertising during television programs with sexy content is less effective than during programs with no sexy content. This is the research finding of Ellie Parker and Adrian Furnham of the Department of Psychology of the University College London.

To quote Robin Williams: “God gave you a penis and a brain, and only enough blood to run one at a time.” So when you’re watching that sexy content, your brain isn’t going to be remembering a damn thing.

Here’s a three-fer

  1. Researchers at the University of Oregon found that when people watch someone perform a task that they know they’ll have to repeat later, similar parts of the brain are activated that are used doing the the task itself. The source is “Watching With Intent To Repeat Ignites Key Learning Area of Brain.”
  2. An article called “Subliminal Advertising Leaves Its Mark On the Brain” cites how researchers at University College London found that subliminal images attract the brain’s attention on a subconscious level. An implication is that subliminal advertising could work. That is, of course, assuming you don’t Tivo past the ads.
  3. Seeing the color red can hinder people from performing their best on tests. This is the conclusion of a study called Research On the Color Red Shows Definite Impact On Achievement” at the University of Rochester.

So our brain is like a sponge, absorbing not just the spilled milk, but all the dust and gunk on the floor too, for better or worse. Great.

Can Managers Create Satisfied Employees?

In the book Organizational Behavior, the column “Managers Can Create Satisfied Employees” caught my eye. It’s a Point vs Counterpoint column that follows a chapter on job satisfaction and how it effects productivity, turnover, and even customers.

The Point read:

A review of the evidence has identified four factors conducive to high levels of employee job satisfaction: mentally challenging work, equitable rewards, supportive working conditions, and supportive colleagues. Importantly, each of these factors is controllable by management.

The Counterpoint read:

Unfortunately there is a growing body of evidence that challenges the notion that managers control the factors that influence employee job satisfaction. The most recent findings indicate that employee job satisfaction is largely genetically determined. … Given these findings, there is probably little that most managers can do to influence employee satisfaction. … The only place where managers will have any significant influence will be through their control of the selection process.

In my experience, I’ve found that both are necessary for an effective team; it’s not an either-or argument. By effective, I mean satisfied and productive.

There are people who naturally seek challenges, are always learning new things, and have a hopeful, positive outlook on their future. A rare few are even able to self-motivate. If you hire only such people (assuming they fulfill your other requirements), you’ll no doubt have a satisfied team initially.

But if you don’t actively keep them engaged with challenging work, appropriate rewards, and a supportive environment, a competitor will easily lure them away. As a manager, you have the ability to reshape the environment. If you don’t create a healthy one, a competitor will.

Effective organizations are the ones that can hire the right kinds of people -and- keep them satisfied & productive.