Here is an excerpt from an article written by Nilofer Merchant for the Harvard Business Review blog (February 28, 2011). To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.
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The crossing light is already flashing red, reminding you to speed it up. You’re in the middle of rush hour, fighting swarms of people, while simultaneously tapping out a message to wrap up that urgent issue back at the office. All around you — hustling and bustling — are people headed to the grocery store, to the gym, to… somewhere.
Nearby, you hear this voice, asking… “Do you have two minutes to…?”
Will you stop to listen? Not very likely, is it?
Work looks a lot like that busy street corner. Hustling to keep up, our colleagues are taking on more and working harder. Even strategic issues are getting shorted; we spend less than two percent of our time discussing strategic issues. Given this context, new ideas have a tough time being heard. It’s no wonder that our colleagues resort to some aggressive approaches to get theirs on our radar screens. Here are some that I’ve seen recently:
• Rapid-fire ideas. Don’t pause to see if any of them are catching on — just keep going, guns a-blazin’. This is the Rambo approach, akin to Sylvester Stallone armed with the biggest-gun-you-ever-saw delivering a one-man barrage of shock and awe. Carried into work, it suggests that if you just fire off enough ideas, at least one will hit the mark.
• Be super-friendly. Recognizing that trust and camaraderie can help get your ideas a moment of consideration, you work the relationships. This is the Sally Field approach (You like me! You really like me!). The problem is that the focus is on the personal relationship, rather than the merit of the idea.
• Hijack the discussion. Just as someone else is putting forth an idea, use a contradictory word or phrase, such as “but,” “no”, or “I disagree.” to interject. You could even do it more insidiously by saying “Great idea. We could also try…” As attention swivels in your direction, direct the conversation to your own idea under the guise of adding commentary. While you’re at it, affectionately mention some of your previous ideas. This contrarian and dismissive approach — best exemplified for me by the movie critic Roger Ebert — is unfortunately commonplace. While acceptable with professional critics, it’s just plain annoying at work.
As much as we’d like to deny we do this, we can at least admit to being tempted to use techniques like these [e.g. creating a blizzard of ideas, being “suoer friendly” if not obsequious, “highjazcking” the discussion] to give our ideas a chance to be heard. Add (in the comments section) your own pet peeves from your work setting, and we’ll have good collection of how not to do it. While any of these methods might be successful in the short run, they typically only result in surfacing the idea, which rarely influences others or gets acted upon.
And that is really is the point. Remember that the goal of offering a new idea is to move the organization forward. We want to serve the needed role of protagonist: someone who helps organizations become more competitive because of their ability to name issues, point to new horizons and create solutions. The goal then is to not only speak up but to be heard.
To be heard implies speaking up in such a way that the idea is given a chance to influence the organization and be acted upon. To be effectively heard, you need to recognize the context, plan your approach, and adjust your style to communicate ideas that, with any luck, will connect with the needs of the business.
Let me offer six better techniques to getting your ideas heard.
Be an anthropologist. There are so many tools for learning about people — what topics they track, what they value, how they approach their work, their opinions. Figure out what your colleagues care about. If they blog, read ’em. If they tweet, follow ’em. Their LinkedIn.com endorsements also tell a story. Observe, learn what makes them tick, andshape your idea to the receiver’s perspective.
Have a perspective. Many people show up at meetings unable to offer a well-considered opinion. If you don’t have an informed perspective, then you risk being labeled a Doer, someone ill-suited to being a protagonist. Doers don’t need seats at the table; no, they can be told what to do via email. When we are working on tough problems— whether it is a new direction or a product or program — we will seek out the folks who are co-thinkers, to become co-creators of our destiny. If you want that role, then come ready to meetings, with a point of view. Sometimes offering a perspective can be as simple as knowing what questions you want to ask.
Create relevance. Every argument can benefit from relevant quantitative data. Figure out which facts matter and get ’em. Even in early markets where the data is still fuzzy, you can figure out if something is the size of a breadbox or a Humvee. Real customer stories and anecdotes are great; backing those up with facts is even better.
Choose your medium. If these are people who value numbers, use an Excel spreadsheet. If they value good graphics, invest there. Better yet, tell a story that weaves together facts of importance in ways people can get lost in. Facts go in and go out, but ideas that stick always have stories that create meaning and resonance.
Answer the question of “why not.” When we can understand the risks, flaws and options more fully, we go from being just an advocate of one idea to being an advocate for the organization. Complex issues deserve each of us thinking about them robustly.
Be passionate. Our point of view is based on our experiences and observations; your idea may not be something that the rest of the group is thinking about yet. This means you’re going to need to explain it to them. If you do it in a way that is about you being in love with the idea rather than about you being right, someone else just might fall in love with that idea, too. Being passionate does not mean having an outburst, but being clear-minded about your approach. Krishna Chaitanya,
a commentator on a recent HBR post, wrote that the the best words are spoken with the most honest, curious (not challenging), and genuine voice. This speaks to a kind of ego-less-ness that is passionate about doing the right thing for the business.
There is a scarily fine line between being perceived as a self-serving scene-stealer vs. someone with valid ideas that need to be considered for the good of the organization. To be a protagonist, you’ve got to not only speak up and be heard, but to do it in a way that advances the organization’s goals. That’s the difference between street corner chaos and actually being heard.
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Nilofer Merchant is a corporate advisor and speaker on innovation methods. Her book, The New How, discussing collaborative ways to have your whole company strategize, was published in 2010. Follow her on Twitter @nilofer.