5 Steps to Becoming an Innovation Champion
There is one truism in organizational life: inertia dominates. Your ideas, no matter how brilliant, will always face a certain amount of resistance. That’s not an evaluative statement. That’s a fact. If you want to be a champion for innovation, you have to develop specific skills that will help you overcome inevitable organizational opposition. Yes, even if that opposition comes exclusively from people you yourself have hired.
You have to learn how to be politically competent (yes, political!) and learn how and when to champion an idea.
As a leader or entrepreneur, it’s no easy task to champion ideas. There will be plenty of pushback, silo’d thinking, and obstacles in your way. Here are the micro-political skills you need to be a champion of new, innovative ideas.
1. Develop a sense of timing
Selecting the timing for publically backing a new idea is important. Once you make a formal announcement or offer the slightest hint of endorsement, there is no backing down. You can’t hold up your hands in the face of resistance and say you were joking. That’s not good leadership.
You must make sure you don’t bring your ideas to the table until they are cooked, especially if you’re not sure whether your idea is something you’re going to pursue all the way. A surefire way to ruin your credibility is to be labeled as someone who doesn’t follow through.
Perfectionism is one of your chief enemies here. This is especially true in areas such as product development. While you’re working to perfect your prototype, your competitor may be preparing to go to market. Think your idea through fully, be certain that you are ready to launch your campaign, but don’t keep waiting for the ideal time. There may never be one.
2. Know your allies and resistors
In organizations, as in politics, having a small group of committed supporters is essential. Your challenge is to find this key group, expand it, and supply it with limited time and resources. While allies are core supporters who love your new idea, there is no guarantee they’ll stay on board. Resistors may fight your new proposal, but with the right trade-offs they may turn into your strongest supporters. An innovation champion conducts a daily poll as to who is in their corner and works persistently to maintain and preserve their coalition.
3. Establish your credibility
The depressing reality is that a lot of fine ideas get squashed in organizations because the person pitching the ideas lacks the credibility to be a successful sponsor. As a pragmatic leader, you have to be credible. Others have to believe that you can get the job done. You just can’t say, “Hey, I’m the guy for the job.”
You have to be smart and establish your expertise, show that there is an opportunity for action, lean on your positional authority, and demonstrate your integrity. If you fire on these four cylinders, others will believe you can deliver.
4. Know the arguments against your idea
Aristotle once said, “Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” Without disrespect to Aristotle, avoiding action isn’t necessarily a guard against criticism. In fact, you likely will be criticized for not taking action. Criticism is one of the realities of leadership, and there is nothing to do but accept it. Instead of letting critics take you by surprise, learn to anticipate what they are going to say, and respond to criticism without losing your head.
Before pitching an idea think of all the possible arguments of resistance and prepare rebuttals, even for arguments you think are outlandish. You have to be prepared.
5. Justify your idea
You have your idea and you know there is a need for action. You have to get others to go along with you to make your idea a reality. How do you sell your idea? How do you frame your idea in a way that makes people want to come on board?
There are four approaches you can take:
- Use analytics, numbers, and projections to back your arguments.
- Say that your competitors are adopting ideas like yours, and that your company needs to stay ahead of the curve.
- Argue that people expect it of you or your team.
- Indicate that regulations or future protocols will demand the acceptance of your idea.
Even as an entrepreneur or CEO, you can't simply introduce an idea and expect people to buy in right away. You might convince your employees, but then they'll need some good arguments to get your clients to go along. Use these five steps as a springboard to help get the most out of innovative ideas.
SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Director, Cornell's Institute of Workplace Studies
Samuel B. Bacharach is the McKelvey-Grant professor in the department of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School, and is director of Cornell's Institute for Workplace Studies in New York City. Among his books are Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. His latest volume, A Good Idea Is Not Enough: Leading for Change and Innovation, will be published this November by BLG.