The talk in your organisation focuses relentlessly on generating innovative and disruptive ideas. So why is it that when you throw out a creative idea at a team meeting, you get the death stare instead of a gold star?
You perturb your boss; your teammates whisper under their breath; and one says out loud what the others are thinking: “Oh yeah, right! Like that will ever happen here.” You walk away bruised, disheartened, and wondering how on earth to introduce a new idea without it being rejected outright before even being considered. Certainly, the quality of the idea has something to do with it.
However, there is much more to it than having a great, creative idea. It’s equally about managing the first impression of your idea. This involves two components: how you position the idea; and how you address the first round of resistance that threatens to smother the conversation before it’s even begun.
Outright resistance is often personal. If you face opposition to an idea, particularly if teammates resist swiftly and forcefully, it probably isn’t about the idea at all. Instead, you have likely triggered very personal discomfort for the people involved.
Passing judgment is one sure-fire way to spark resistance. When you floated your idea, did your tone imply that everything that’s been tried before was lacking? Did you make the mistake of starting a sentence with “When I worked at Awesome Incorporated…?” If so, you probably aroused feelings of inadequacy and elicited self-protective resistance.
Another way you might have triggered resistance was by making the idea sound exotic or overly complex. While you were focused on making your idea sound compelling, your jargon-filled description only made it feel more foreign and intimidating to your teammates. Ideas that people don’t understand or can’t relate to, will invoke fear of looking ignorant or anxiety about not being fully competent. Shutting down the idea ensures they won’t be exposed as a fish out of water.
When introducing a new idea to a potentially resistant audience, invest as much energy in what you say and how you say it as you did in coming up with the idea itself. Think about how the idea will reflect upon your audience more than you think about how it will reflect upon you.
There are a few strategies that will increase the likelihood that your idea will get a fair hearing:
• Start by connecting the idea to the existing strategy: Drawing one or two links can help in two ways. First, by relating your idea to existing strategies, it will seem less foreign and will reduce the likelihood of arousing the fear of the unknown. Second, by building on the existing strategy, you implicitly validate it. Here’s an example of the difference: Rather than saying “I think we need a whole new knowledge management software product line,” try “We’ve got a strategy of pursuing small privately owned firms and we’ve had particular success selling our accounting software into small professional services firms. Our account reps are telling us that clients are struggling to implement all the new regulatory reforms. What if we were to add a new knowledge management product line targeted specifically at their regulatory requirements?”
• Make analogies to existing products, services, or processes: Another way to reduce resistance to new or unfamiliar ideas is to associate them with things that are well understood. What successful model does your idea relate to? In the software company example, it might be “We already have the Shazam knowledge management tool for our large clients, this would be mini-Shazam for lawyers and accountants!” Alternatively, you can relate it to an example outside your organization, such as: “It’s like Wikipedia for lawyers.” The idea is to make the idea seem less scary and more achievable by relating it to a known quantity. (“Just please don’t compare your idea to Uber.”)
• Discuss how your idea would meet the needs of a key stakeholder: Sometimes you need to borrow someone’s clout to give your idea the extra oomph it needs to get over the threshold. Don’t claim that a senior leader is on board if she isn’t, but it’s totally acceptable (and quite strategic) to mention things that matter to your boss’ boss and to tie your idea back to them. For example: “At the conference in March, Aliya said that she thinks we already have all the great ideas we need, we just need to commercialize them in new ways and in new markets. I think she’d be really excited if we told her we had a huge unexploited market opportunity for our Shazam software”. Even with your best efforts to sound non-judgemental and to connect your idea to existing frameworks and strategies, you’re still likely to face at least some resistance.
If your idea is dismissed openly, calmly invite the person to share their concerns.
There are many things you can do to improve the quality of your creative ideas. But the best idea in the world doesn’t assure you of a fair hearing if the innovation disrupts your teammates’ sense of confidence, competence, or comfort. More energy invested in making your idea palatable will increase the likelihood that it gets a fair hearing and isn’t spit out reflexively