You’ve observed, collected and made sense of the research. You’ve discovered what might be a breakthrough idea, and now you have to get buy-in from your team.
The only problem is that the most innovative ideas are the same ones most likely to be rejected.
“Managers will say they want fresh ideas, and out of the box thinking, but then when they're presented with those ideas, they're more likely to reject the ones that are truly out of the box, in favor of the same old, same old type of solution,” explains David Burkus, author of The Myths of Creativity: the Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas. Batterii interviewed Burkus to better determine some of the persistent myths of enterprise innovation, and how individuals can best present their innovative ideas to colleagues and managers.
No matter the person or the company, we’re just not as good as we think we are at recognizing innovative or creative solutions (1). What makes matters worse is that in a large organization, layers of hierarchy can compound this problem—where an idea must get a “yes” at every level.
Knowing managers have a tendency to reject the most innovative ideas, how can you work against this bias when looking to get buy-in for your next big idea?
Expect Rejection As You Look for People to Abandon the Old
“When we have a really good idea, people think that the world will rush to them,” Burkus says, a concept he refers to as the Mousetrap Myth. We’ve been told that if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door—but that is rarely the case at all, especially within the enterprise setting.
“If an idea is truly innovative, then it's a new idea, or a new approach to solving a problem, meaning it departs from the status quo. At the same time it needs to be seen as useful, and practical, and valuable, but what we use to judge practicality is the status quo,” Burkus explains. If we adopt the mentality that a radical idea probably will be rejected, we can better influence and present an idea so it has the highest chance of acceptance.
Departing from the Status Quo
When we pitch a novel idea in an uncertain environment, we must work to show how the solution is a new improvement, or how this new product can actually be a logical continuation of the old. This concept is called compatibility, or how much an idea is perceived as a logical extension of a product or service’s current state. The concept of compatibility is one of five factors stemming from sociology professor Everett Rodgers who conducted research from more than 500 studies to examine why innovations spread (2).
“Whoever you are pitching to needs to be able to see how to get from the present to the advantageous future—a future you are promising” says Burkus. “If however, they don’t see the connection between where they are and how to get to where you want to go, then you can count on rejection.
Another factor that influences buy-in is relative advantage: how well an idea compares to the existing solutions in the category. “If an idea can be shown as a dramatically advantageous alternative, people are more willing to accept it. That’s why before and after testimonials are so effective.”
Complexity, another key factor, relates to how easily people can understand or relate to a new solution. The simpler we can explain a solution, the more likely we are to get greater acceptance.
Burkus explains that observability is also important to recognize. Observability is how easy people can discern results when trying a new product or service. “It’s the ability to see a great effect from a little test,” he says. Related to this factor is the concept of trialability. “Trialability reflects how much effort is involved in implementation of a new concept, or experimentation with a new product.” If an idea is difficult to try on a small scale, it’s less likely to be pursued.
Proving observability and trialability bring their own set of challenges within an enterprise. “For some reason, in some corporate settings, people are actually less willing to prototype and test, and so they just resort to standard brainstorming, and then pick an idea and write a proposal.”
The generation of ideas is just one part in the innovation process, and there is much learning in the cyclical iteration process of prototyping, refining and testing that should come after brainstorming or ideation, says Burkus. Despite the success realized with iterating and testing, large corporations often have a bias against these innovation stages.
Anticipate Healthy Debate & Criticism
Even if all five of these factors are presented with success—a scenario in which ideas stand the greatest chance of acceptance—you can still expect debate and judgment when you present your idea, but that’s a good sign, says Burkus. “Getting along with a team is certainly important, but you also need a structure and a culture, where it's okay to speak up or speak out, about products problems, or what's called task-oriented conflict. As we're in the process of making something better, it's okay to argue and to challenge.”
A myth in large organizations persists that getting along as a team is paramount to great ideas, explains Burkus. However, a team should be able to present big ideas, and have a healthy discussion around the value of those ideas—which may invite conflict in the process. “If you're in an organization where that's not going on, it either means that people don't have any new ideas about how to fix something, or that they may be self-censoring because they're so afraid of being the nail that sticks up, and they're afraid of getting hammered down that they're self-censoring the great ideas they do have.”
There is a delicate balance, but ask any truly innovative team and you’ll find structured conflict, not pure cohesion.
About David Burkus
David Burkus is the author of The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas. He writes regularly for Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Psychology Today and 99U. He is also founder of LDRLB and assistant professor of management at Oral Roberts University where he teaches courses on organizational behavior, creativity and innovation, and strategic leadership.
1) Mueller, J. S., Melwani, S., & Goncalo, J. A. (2011). The Bias Against Creativity: Why People Desire but Reject Creative Ideas. Psychological Science, 13–17. http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1457&context=articles
2) Burkus, David. "Get Buy-In for Your Crazy Idea." Harvard Business Review. 3 June 2015. https://hbr.org/2015/06/how-to-get-buy-in-for-your-crazy-idea
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