How to Sell an Innovation Program to Your Boss

You’ve seen the alarming statistics and heard the sad tales of corporation disruption. As a corporate employee, you’d like to help your team avoid the same fate. You’ve told your boss about other companies who have found success using entrepreneurial methods to innovate, but it’s not enough to win time, money or permission. What if we could use the very same methods to gain support and successfully implement?

I have some tips from my successes and failures that I thought I’d share.

First, some tips.

  • Change your mindset. You shouldn’t be selling! Your job is not to convince anyone to let you do this. Instead, you should be offering a solution to a problem that they already have.

  • Eat your own dog food by doing customer development interviews. Your customers are your boss, peers and leadership. Seek to understand hidden motivations, worries and pains so that you can offer a solution to their authentic problems as individuals, not convincing them that they need to change.

  • Look for the human reasons people want to do or not want to do something. For example, are they trying to get a promotion, fix something that’s broken, leave a legacy? Are they motivated by money, fear, accolades?

  • Don’t start with a huge powerpoint deck. The way to win this is through conversations, empathy, and evidence gathered from experiments.

  • Start small. Try hosting an internal event like this. Maybe focus the change on internal processes to demonstrate how it works. Generate some quick wins to build a compelling story. 

Here’s a process broken down into some simple steps:

1. Find the Improvement Goal

We’ve established that you can’t start by presenting a solution if you don’t know your customer’s problem. Find their goal and make it your own. Adopt your goal as your own. Make their goal your goal.

An improvement goal is a gap. Your solution has to fill that gap without triggering any worries at the same time. Your boss has a vision for what a new steady-state looks like, but it keeps getting interrupted by things they have no control over.

Perhaps your personal objective for the company has something to do with delivering growth or efficiency to the business. Your first objective is make some assumptions about why you think entrepreneurial methods can help you, your team or the business. This becomes your improvement goal. You can then start to have discussions to see if your improvement goal matches that of your leadership. Present your improvement goal to them, and keep adjusting it until they agree (this might take a few conversations to discover).

2. Diagnose

Diagnose all of the things the organization is doing or not doing to achieve that goal.

For example:

Improvement goal: Use fewer resources to launch new products

Doing: Giving large amounts of funding to projects that are unproven

Not Doing: No change in the processes or criteria required to launch new products

3. Find the Worries

Ask “What would worry you about that?” or “what would worry you if…”

Knowing their goals and the things they are doing and not doing to keep from achieving it, you can then uncover WHY they continue to do or not do the things that keep them from achieving their goals. They are secretly committed to some underlying belief, fear or mantra that is standing if the way of yes.

It’s important to acknowledge that you’re asking for the organization or your boss to change, and large organizations are designed to remain steady, creating processes and reward structures that encourage predictable procedures and outcomes for the current business model. Change triggers worries. Find out what is triggering the worries.

Worry: If I ask for less money, leadership might assume I’m not working as hard.

Worry: If I don’t use all of my money, I won’t get as much next year.

Hidden Commitment: I need a large budget to prove I’m important in the organization.

4. Experiment

Run some experiments and do small prototypes to see what works. Figure out how you can solve these or at least not trigger immunities with your solution. This may require a few iterations – create prototypes or run experiments to gauge the reaction to your potential solution, but never present the final solution until you’re positive it won’t trigger immunities. Experiments must be stealthy, prototypes must create measurable data. Make sure you’re doing things that will provide data that you can act upon to refine your solution and how you will bring it to your customer. The goal here is to learn what works and collect hard evidence. Here’s a basic tool you can use to design experiments: The Experiment Board.

5. Deliver

When it comes time to talk with leadership, you’ve already interviewed them, so it’s not surprise. Use the words they used and position your solution as the thing they need to solve an existing problem. Saying no should feel impossible to them. And when you reveal the solution, you’ve already address possible objections because you understood them deeply and you designed the solution to take them into consideration.

6. What to Expect

3 common improvement goals and worries I find associated with entrepreneurial innovation:

Improvement Goal: Work with fewer resources.

Worry: If we say we can work with fewer resources, we’ll get fewer resources. And then maybe no resources!

Improvement Goal: Get better consumer insights through more innovative methods.

Worry: Leadership needs hard data to make decisions, and customer discovery is too qualitative. I’ll sound like an idiot trying to justify that.

Improvement Goal: Use a minimum viable product approach to launch more products, faster.

Worry: We have quality standards we have to meet. That will never fly with leadership.

These are common goals and worries that can easily be explored, but the work is done through conversations. Remember to keep iterating. Follow the Build Measure Learn process, communicate transparently and generously, and most importantly – have a long-term view on this. This will help you uncover the secret that will have you getting what you want in no time. Now go talk to people!

Carie Davis