Saturday, December 13, 2008

10 Ways to Get Management to Listen to Your Ideas

I often hear disengaged employees complain that their management is close-mined, not open to change, stuck in their ways, and just not open to new ideas. “Why’s that?” I’ll ask? “Why would a perfectly reasonable person not be interested in a good idea?”

Sometimes, the person or group that has formed this belief works for a pointy-haired boss (PHB). Or maybe a BOSS (double SOB spelled backwards). This article isn’t about those managers, because frankly, I’ve never had much success getting idiot managers to listen to good ideas. In these cases, you’re better off looking for a new manager to work for or pitch your idea to.

The good news is, most managers are relatively intelligent, successful people who are working as hard if not harder than you to help your team and the company succeed. They’re always looking for good ideas. They also often have experience, know more, and are in a good position to evaluate the merits of an idea. When they reject your idea, chances are, your idea may not have been as good as you thought, or maybe you didn’t do a good job pitching it.

Another reality is that most ideas are never implemented. I’d compare it to baseball. A 300 average (3 ideas implemented out of 10) and you’re an all-star. However, if you never even step up to the plate, or take a swing, your batting average will always be 0. So start by having a realistic expectation of what success is when it comes to innovation.

What can you do to ensure your ideas at least get listened to? Managers are as different as people are different, so there’s no one way that will work for all. Knowing your manager’s style will help, so you can adapt your approach. For example, using a social styles model, a “Driver” will want you to get to the point and present the facts. With an “Amiable”, you’ll have a better chance if you’ve built a good relationship first.

However, for many managers, or least for me, consider the following tips:

1. Develop an inspiring vision of your idea. Describe it in a way that brings out your enthusiasm, your passion, and commitment. Most people have a hard time not listening to someone that’s genuinely fired up about something. And if YOU’RE not excited about it, how can you expect someone else to be interested?

2. Take the time to think it over, list the pros and cons, and come up with a plan. Check to see if it’s been thought of or tried before, and what were the results. In other words, don’t waste your manager’s time “thinking out loud” – do your thinking on your own time, then present a well developed idea.

3. Test your idea with a few trusted co-workers. See if it makes sense to them, ask them to be critical, and provide feedback. Check for their understanding to see how well you’re explaining it. While you shouldn’t let resistance squash your enthusiasm, be prepared to accept that if five people tell you it’s ugly, it just might be ugly.

4. While I can’t speak for all managers, here’s some ideas are more likely to get your manager’s attention:
- A way to reduce expenses
- A way to increase revenue
- A way to get more done with less people (improve efficiency)
- A solution to a problem your manager has been trying to solve
- An idea that will help your department achieve one or more of its goals
- An idea that will help one of your co-workers be more successful (rarely do we come up with these kind of ideas… that is, being an advocate for your peers, and not just yourself or your manager)

5. Here are a few ideas that are more likely to lose your manager’s interest in the first three minutes:
- Something obviously self-promoting, or blatant empire building
- A way to make your job easier, but at other people’s expense
- Something that has a great potential to embarrass your manager (and you)
- Something that’s going to cost a LOT of money in a tight economy
- An idea built on the assumption that 2+2=5
- Fluff

6. When you present your idea, answer your manager’s questions patiently and with respect. If you don’t know the answer, admit it, and commit to getting the answer.

7. If your manager starts making suggestions, then you’re there! That means he/she is starting to buy in, and taking some shared ownership. Don’t be rigid about the details – give a little, if anything just to get buy-in, and who knows, your manager’s suggestions just might improve your chances for success.

8. Be willing to let go of the notion that the idea is “yours”. The best ideas are the ones where multiple stakeholders have had a hand in shaping, and you’ve been able to build a broad base of ownership and support. Insisting that you get “credit” for “your” idea will be seen as immature and selfish. Don’t worry; enough people will become aware of your involvement, especially if you keep coming up with good ideas. Don’t expect your name and picture to be inscribed on the idea.

9. Decide on who else should be involved. Determine who the stakeholders are: who will be impacted the most, whose support do you need, and who else could contribute to refining the idea. Agree on who should talk to whom and by when.

10. If needed, follow-up with a more detailed, formal business case. Stay on it. Ideas are a dime a dozen, but execution is what separates the great from the average. This is not a “drop and run”. That is, drop your proposal or business case on your manager’s desk and sit back and wait. Step up and take personal responsibility for making sure the idea gets implemented. That’s a good way to get yourself heard the next time.


CherryPie said...

You also have to be reasonable, it is the best way to get anyone to listen to you.

Anonymous said...

Great post - thanks for taking the time to spell out the details. I especially love points 8 and 9 because that's where it can be so difficult for so many of us to sit there and let the idea go free.

Anonymous said...

Hello, Dan!

Outstanding post.

Perhaps another perspective... When you are sharing ideas, even if they are not used/accepted, you are saying one thing to your manager... "I am a player."

High performance managers love "players".

Intent matters. Perseverance matters.

Keep rockin'!

Dan McCarthy said...

CherryPie, Pat, Chris -
Thanks for your comments.

Chris -
Right. Don't you hate it when someone sits in a meeting for 8 hours and never contributes a single original thought?

Mary Jo Asmus, President, Aspire Collaborative Services LLC said...

Dan, this is a great list!

I would also add that your manager may be attuned to wanting certain kinds of information in a proposal/idea. I worked for a pharmaceutical company where many of the managers in certain parts of the organization were promoted from the ranks of scientist. In this case, it always helped to have done some "research" before presenting and idea - and having some solid facts and figures to back it up.

The financial managers may want to know what something will cost, and the sales managers may want to know projected sales figures. Etcetera.

Anonymous said...

A wonderful and helpful post, Dan. I'd underline that part about most ideas never being implemented. In large organization some of this is structural. To get past your manager and merit the attention of those higher beings he or she reports to, the idea needs to be big enough in potential impact to get their attention and implementable within the current budget. That kills many good ideas right there.

Other ideas aren't implemented because they won't work without adjustment or won't work at all. Idea generators usually only see the upside, so your odds of having your idea go up if you consider practical realities from several angles.

Dan McCarthy said...

Mary Jo -
Good add. another part of knowing your audiance... overlooking this stops ideas before they can even be heard.

Dan McCarthy said...

Wally -
Thanks. right, it seems that ROI or NPV thresholds get higher in a tough economy.
Good point - the best "idea generators" hve to be practical optimists.

Anonymous said...


Another excellent post! Please consider a post on suggestions for what to do if management does NOT listen to your ideas, even after following your great suggestions.

I'll include this post on LeadershipNews:

Dan McCarthy said...

“News” –
Thanks for the Twitter mention, and for the suggestion.
If a “player”, as Chris says, keeps coming up with truly great ideas, and can’t get a manager to listen to even 3/10 of them, then that’s usually a case of an “A” player working for a “C” manager. C managers wont’ listen because they’re threatened, insecure, arrogant, or too dense to know a great idea when they see it. If that’s the case, again, I’m not sure any amount of skill or finesse is going to work – short of fooling the manager into thinking they came up with it themselves. And that gets tiring.

I’ll have to default to my “3 options when you work for a jerk/hate your job”:
1. Give up, suffer in silence or complain to anyone who’ll listen. Not the best choice. No one likes a whiner.
2. Keep trying, stay optimistic, keep swinging, and hope somehow the weight of your good ideas overcome the inertia of your manager. Maybe you’ll rub off on your manager, and help them be a better manager.
Bad managers have a way of imploding. Don’t let a bad boss drag you down.
3. Look for a new manager (new job). Unfortunately, that’s what happens when managers won’t allow their employees to think, take calculated risks, and succeed.

Wow, now that’s one of my longer comment responses – thanks for provoking it!

Anonymous said...

Hi Dan -

Great post and great tips. It reminded me of the conversation about "they" that often comes up in working with high potentials. (e.g. "They" don't get it.) Your post prompted me to share more on that kind of conversation in my own blog.

Thanks for stimulating my thinking and for sharing your wisdom.

Cheers -


Dan McCarthy said...

Scott -
Thanks, I'll take a look!

Steven Sonsino said...

Dan, this is a helpful post (and modest too, unlike so many commentators in this arena).

I particularly like the brainstorming idea (4), the check your ideas before opening your mouth item (5) and I think the planning and preparation advice (9) is excellent.

Here's something, though. A couple of folks I spoke to about the post said they don't like to plan things like this too much... Conversations should be 'free-flowing' and 'not too stilted'.

I can see that if you over-rehearsed a response you might look 'insincere'. But I would have thought a seasoned boss would welcome a manager thinking something through carefully.

I half wonder if my friend is making a half-baked excuse for not planning.

But I can see that the insincerity might be a problem. What do you think?

Take care

Dan McCarthy said...

Steven –
Thanks for the feedback. I like it when I get some reaction to a post, and appreciate you talking to a few friends about it.
I’m not meaning to imply that all conversations be this planned and deliberate. I have a lot of free flowing conversations with my manager, my managers’ manager, my employees, peers, etc…
I wrote these guidelines thinking about when you’d have a big idea, one that you really care about (and you are VERY sincere), and you know it’s going to take some work. Perhaps it was always directed to those that haven’t had as much success as they would like in getting their ideas accepted, so I was trying to think of EVERY possible way to help.
So if your friend has a good track record in this area, then he/she must be doing something right.