The Unspoken Part of Innovation

Innovation consists of three essential components – invention, acceptance and execution.  An ever expanding literature, countless training programs and extensive media coverage focus primarily on getting and implementing needed new ideas rather than on the critical survive-or-die ingredient known as “agreement”. For, without acceptance and support, there is no innovation. 

In 2007, the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario,  commissioned the development of an advanced residential learning program on thinking and innovation skills for senior executives. Called Smart Leaders, its principal focus was on the increasingly compelling need to add creative and intuitive capabilities into an accountant’s ingrained, default view that breakthrough solutions are primarily the result of rational, disciplined analysis. The program, offered through several provincial Institutes over the past five years, clearly achieved that objective, as confirmed by positive attendee feedback. However, while discussed, in retrospect insufficient attention was given to “how to sell” one’s breakthrough business concept to those with the resources required for its execution. 

Enter Smart Leaders 2.0.  This rebuilt executive development experience now places appropriate emphasis on the art of the pitch – the ability to create allies for the cause rather than adversaries who prefer the uncomplicated but less effective status quo. 

Business leaders today proclaim innovation to be a core competency  yet the proven success rate is an abysmal four per cent. According to the Global Innovation Index, Canada currently ranks twelfth out of 14 developed countries. If innovation is the art of getting people to change, then learning how to gain supporters and investors, especially when competing for scarce resources (where innovation faces its stiffest resistance), may be the simple solution. After all, coming up with new, workable concepts is neither difficult nor expensive – many say ideas are worth a dime a dozen. The tough part is getting critics and skeptics on board, willing to build, refine and strengthen rather than tear down and reject. 

While innovation is easy to understand, albeit difficult to execute, the keys are fairly straightforward. You don’t start by looking for new ideas; you begin by finding real problems in need of better solutions. You foster a culture that embraces risk taking and intelligent failure because learning from smart mistakes is the seed of invention. And you must intimately understand the basics – the fundamental principles, the paradoxes and the process of innovation.

That’s nothing new.  The real trick, however, is teaching people how to acquire co-architects and contributors, given that all brilliant ideas in their conception are embryonic and thus fragile. 

So how is that accomplished?  Over 40 years of trials, tribulations and accomplishments in developing and leading new business presentations provides some useful guidance. Start with the premise that people love to buy but hate to be sold. Translation: never argue with your buyers – the objective is to uncover the reasons for resistance or discover the challenges they may not know they have. In other words, seek to learn. Don’t try to win the argument but end up losing the sale. 

As always, preparation accounts for fifty per cent of your success  in gaining acceptance (persuasion accounts for the balance). Begin by distilling the key selling points to their persuasive excellence by answering three basic questions: 

  • What do you want them to know?
  • What do you want them to feel?
  • What do you want them to do?

Every consumer (be it of products, services or ideas) wants to know only one thing  What’s in it for me? So translate your features into their benefits – what is it that will make their lives better? Learn how to align with your “customers” – see the world through their eyes, find similarities and common ground, and know how to start pithy, colorful, interesting conversations. 

Engage your buyers by strategically mimicking behaviours and using persuasive non-verbal gestures. Never bore people – create a simple, credible, inspirational story and tell it with gusto. Don’t try to be a comedian but do occasionally leverage the power of relevant, timely humour. When possible, use visuals: they engage the mind and are easy to remember. Choose single words that “stick” (Obama’s pitch in 2008 was a message of Hope; in 2012, his platform was Forward). And be brief: the quality of your message is more important than the quantity of the verbiage supporting it. Think Twitter – can you compress your unique selling proposition into 140 characters? Lastly, practice (with an audience) until you’re comfortable with your pitch. 

Other time-tested guidelines include the value of understatement  – avoid the hard sell. New ideas can’t be rammed through with exuberant rhetoric. They require subtle, fact-buttressed persuasion. Never use unsubstantiated claims. Many sound ideas are turned down simply because irrelevant arguments or evidence are used to justify them. Pre-empt anticipated challenges – give arguments both for and against to convince the more sophisticated of your thoroughness and take the wind out of possible objections. 

Once you’ve learned the basics, dare to be bold.  Try omitting a vital detail. When it’s picked up by one of the listeners and added as his or her suggestion, you’ve gained two proponents for your idea. Or purposefully plant an imperfection in the proposal to enable doubters to put their “fingerprints” on an even better idea. Remember, the objective is to attract allies and co-option is a good strategy. Always welcome suggestions for revision. Apart from improving the idea, the person making the revision now has a stake in the proposal. She has become a “co-creator” rather than a passive, judgmental listener. In selling, ‘we’ is always better than ‘me’. 

Mastering the art of the pitch also requires an ability to stay upbeat despite rejection.  It does happen – the advice above is a recipe not a formula. Staying positive as you present requires an understanding of the principles of resistance (and how to overcome it), the value of failure as an invaluable teacher and the power of positive self-talk. A high aspiration level – an unqualified belief in what you’re selling – is critical to your success as an innovator. Perhaps more so than skill.

This article was written for and published in The Bottom Line, May 2013.