Wednesday, July 6, 2011

How to sell your idea to your boss - HBR article

I had the fortune of working with some great CIOs and CTOs. Some of them where very technical savvy, while others where very business oriented. The best technical managers, in my opinion, are those that can align business with technology. Unfortunately, I worked for some really bad managers. Working for someone like that its very challenging. The worse is when he manages a technical team (programmers, sysadmins, etc) and claim to have some technical expertise when he clearly does not. This type of manager is very dangerous when he starts weighting on architectural decisions, programming preferences, and others. I worked for just this type of manager once and I learned a lot. The biggest challenge for me was when I had to pitch an idea - technical methodology (Scrum, Kaban, Agile) or having to learn a different language (Ruby on Rails, Groovy, or JRuby). HBR wrote about a similar scenerio: How to sell your idea to your boss. Here is what the article talks about:

Main point:
  • You are a middle manager
  • You see the big picture but your boss does not. He is just focused on the here and now
  • What do you do if your boss wants you to stay in your place?

First and foremost, do your job: Make certain that you do everything you are asked to do. Onced you have stablished yourself as a credible performer, there are three things you can do to give your big idea a better chance to succeed:

1 - Align you initiatives with the corporate objectives:
  • Whatever you propose must complement your company's strategic direction.
  • Build a business case for your idea by showing how your idea does not conflict with current priorities, but in fact supports them by planning for the future

2 - Work Through Your Boss:
  • Do not go around your boss
  • Walking through your plan and get his feedback
  • Incorporate his ideas if they are viable
  • Find ways for your boss to get some credit

3 - Build coalitions:
Things get done in organizations because people pull together to get the work done. The same goes for driving initiatives. Enlist the support of peers to help you get your idea of the ground. Leverage your customers; these are the people who will benefit from your idea. Frame your idea around serving their needs more comprehensively.

While I have seen these steps work, I have to admit that some bosses cannot be led. These are bosses who are typically very insecure in their positions and feel that creativity from below is a thread to their powers. Managers who step on others do not deserve to be in positions of authority, but as long as they wield authority as a weapon, their direct reports are best advised to keep their heads own and do as hey are told - that is, until they can find another outlet or opportunity for their talents and skills.

Management, when it works, is a reciprocal process. Bosses set direction, set objectives, and follow up to ensure that work is completed on time and on budget. Employees must ensure that they do what their boss asks then to do. But managers and employees work best when they understand both that good ideas can come from anywhere in the organization and that companies can capitalize on them are the ones that will succeed. Success depends upon those who not only think creatively but also have the skills to put their ideas into action.

Another key element in pitching new ideas is how they are framed. Nobel Prize - winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his collegues Amos Tversky demostrated that when choices are framed as gains versus no gains, decision makers tend to be risk averse. When choices are are framed as losses versus no losses, however, decisions makers tend to be risk seeking. So if you pitch idea by emphasizing what the company can gain (new customers, more profits, higher market share, etc) as a result of implementing the new idea, you may actually be making it less likely that the idea will be accepted. If you pitch it by emphasizing what the company will avoid loosing (ground to the competition, lower market share, etc) by implementing the new idea, however, you may find your boss more receptive to the idea.

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