A fancy title and a corner office don’t necessarily correlate to having the best idea in the room. In fact, the most innovative ideas often come from those who are looking at the problem in a new way.
The intern who’s unfamiliar with standard business practices or the human resources rep who’s not even involved in the project may be just the person to provide a fresh perspective. But who’s going to take that "outside" voice seriously?
The only way to make sure your idea is heard is to demand that even the person in the corner office listens. My advice for up-and-comers: Come prepared, be strategic, anticipate skepticism and stay open.
A friend told me about her brother’s first piano performance at Yale. That class was his first time studying piano; he had no clue how to read music; and so for the first piece he was assigned to play, he stayed up until the wee hours memorizing every finger placement. It all went well until he finished the piece, and the professor stood up, walked over to him, and turned the sheet music to the other side. In all the time this student had spent practicing, he’d never thought to check whether there was any music on the back of the page!
If you have a strong idea, don’t just blurt it out in a partially formed state. While that may be something others can get away with — and may even be encouraged to do in a creative environment — your first time in the spotlight shouldn’t be an improv.
Gather your thoughts, formulate an argument, and give people reason to take heed. The last thing you want is to be defenseless when someone asks a question, points out of a flaw, or challenges an assumption.
I’ve never met Sharon Standifird, but I sure do like her style. She was tired of her teenagers ignoring her texts and phone calls, and so she invented the "Ignore No More" app. Now, when her kids ignore her, she can remotely disable their phones for any use other than calling her (or 911). The out-of-touch child has to check in to get a four-digit code before his or her phone is functional again.
Standifird understands that you don’t get what you want by simply wishing it into existence. The Gulf War veteran knows you have to come from a position of strength. In the business world, that means choosing the right time and place in which to present your idea (not as the meeting is breaking up or the team is scrambling to meet an unrelated deadline), and you have to bring whatever backup you can — whether it be statistical evidence that your plan will work or more-senior talent who can provide initial support.
When you’re running a company, it can be tough to get honest feedback. When you’re far down the chain and presenting an opinion or idea no one’s asked for, that’s not going to be your problem.
What you’ll likely face instead is either outright dismissal ("It’s not going to work … " "That’s not relevant here … ") or a barrage of questions designed to figure out not just your idea’s worth but also your own.
Anticipate that, and know it’s not personal. I tend to ask a lot of questions when presented with an unexpected idea — regardless of whose it is — not because I don’t believe it’s valid but because I need to understand what the person presenting it already has figured out. How is this idea going to solve a problem or create an opportunity? What if X happens or Y doesn’t? It’s your idea, so come prepared to defend it.
When you come up with an idea you love, it can be easy to get territorial about it. None of us likes it when people want to tinker with something we know is already the way it should be. And yet, as great as your idea may be, it won’t go anywhere if it’s not embraced by the ultimate decision makers.
So invite feedback. Listen to what others have to say. And don’t be so wedded to the initial concept that you fail to see opportunities not just to improve upon it, but also to learn, advance relationships, and make a positive impression.
I love this quote from Stephen King: "Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open." There are very few things we can do better alone than together.
Businesses in every industry are hungry for ideas. Bake in these ingredients, and you’ll make yours a lot harder to reject.
Andrew Benett is global chief executive officer of Havas Worldwide and Havas Creative Group. Follow him on Twitter @andrewbbenett.