If you’ve ever bombed a presentation, you know how lousy it feels. Most of the time, however, when we fail to win over an audience it happens less dramatically.
Your email goes unread.
Your presentation is met with polite thank-you’s and never discussed again.
You requests for input go unanswered by key people.
Marty Cagan recently gave a talk explaining the challenges product managers overcame on the way to huge success with products including Microsoft Word, Netflix, iTunes and others. If you read the article or watch the video, you’ll find that in every case getting stakeholders with legitimate objections to buy in was a big part of their job – perhaps the biggest part.
Even if you’ve done an outstanding job of problem discovery and scoping, it’s the nature of things that big new ideas usually aren’t accepted right away. There are always other things in which the company can invest resources. If you want to innovate and do big things, you’ve got to be able to sell an idea internally first. Building a killer business case is critical, but it also takes good old fashioned personal effectiveness to move it over the goal line.
Many if not most product managers are too busy simply getting work done to focus on how to drive adoption of their ideas more effectively. The harsh reality though is that if you aren’t getting better at this, your career is likely to stall — or at least advance more slowly than you’d like.
How to Drive Adoption of Your Ideas
Being a persuasive advocate for your ideas doesn’t require you to become a gifted public speaker or assume a new personality. It simply requires you to think more carefully about what it takes to convince the people you need on your side. Understanding the motivations behind their objections and concerns and then being thoughtful in how you address them is the formula.
The bad news? It does take effort. The good news? It’s hardly rocket science to master the basics:
Do Your Homework – Eliminate sloppy thinking without losing boldness. Has your idea already been tried somewhere else and failed? By asking someone to get on board with your idea, are you implicitly asking them to contradict other things they’ve committed to already? Who is going to have rational objections, and who will have emotional objections to what you propose? Anticipate the likely objections and bake those into how you frame the problem or opportunity for stakeholders. Don’t water down the idea — just make it easier to swallow.
Put It in Writing – Jeff Bezos is known for requiring his senior managers to present ideas in six-page memos that the team reads together in silence to start meetings. Writing forces you to organize your thoughts. As Bezos puts it, “There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.” Your boss may not want a six-page memo right away, but go through the exercise of organizing your thoughts in longform anyway.
Identify the Stakeholders – Figure out whom you want to get input from early and who you ultimately need in order to get traction. Remember, the final decision maker does not have to be present at the beginning. In fact, it’s best if they aren’t there the whole time while you’re collecting feedback and iterating.
Choose the Right Format – You’ve got e-mail, word docs, spreadsheets, charts, infographics, power point, Prezi and lots of other neat presentation tools all at your disposal. You might decide that drawing the idea on a whiteboard in-person works best, which is fine too. Just don’t limit your options. Choose the format that your audience will appreciate.
Engage In-Person – If someone you’re trying to influence someone who already gets 200 emails a day, being the 201st is not a good strategy. Take them to lunch or coffee, or get them in front of a whiteboard for a few minutes to walk them through your thoughts. Set up a call he or she can do from the car while driving home if you have to. Make it easy for them to listen to you. And don’t follow up over the same medium twice in a row.
Define Next Steps – Don’t go into a conversation without knowing what you want the next steps to be afterward. Who else should you talk to, or what else do you need to think through before the idea can be considered? And take ownership of the next steps whenever possible so that you’re in control of the momentum.
These may sound like small steps, and inividually they are. But taken together and done consistently over time, how you perform simple activities adds up to a big difference in your ability to get things done.