Whether an entrepreneur or a politician, whether pitching to a VC group or getting an idea through Congress, whether a CEO or a team manager, you are perpetually faced with the challenge of getting support. Essentially, you are trying to get people behind your agenda, your idea, your proposal. You are trying to move your agenda by winning them over. In this day and age, no one is just going to jump on your bandwagon because of your charisma or because they instinctively appreciate your idea. You are going to have to justify your idea. You are going to have to legitimize your idea by making it clear to others that there are good reasons to get behind your agenda.
There is much written about the science and art of justification, in the debate literature, in the literature on social-psychological persuasion, and certainly in political science. In the context of an organization, I've argued in my research and my writing that there are four core ways you can justify your idea.
1. The cost-benefit argument.
In justifying your initiative, it is always a good idea to run the numbers and do cost-benefit analysis. This will help you develop a well-structured presentation of alternatives shows that your effort is backed up by real research and an understanding of what's happening in your organization and in the relevant industry or sector. Quantification, statistics, and models are hard to argue with. When you cite the cost-benefit argument, you emphasize the empirical payoff of your agenda.
You would think that this one argument would carry the day. That is, if the numbers fall in place, that people will get behind your agenda. As you know, people can be wary of numbers. Sometimes they need additional security. The numbers may be complete in your mind, but they may not be sufficient to get others on board.
2. The best-practices argument.
The best-practices argument is based on the psychological premise if others believe that someone has tried something, they will be less hesitant in joining a similar effort. There is a certain mythology about best practices. Often, best practices are not empirically supported by any numbers but rather by myths and rumors. Empirically validated or not, the best-practices arguments may give your supporters the sense there is a precedent, which lowers the risk for them to join your effort.
The simple fact that peer organizations have gone in a particular direction makes the best practices argument particularly potent. The best practices argument can be successfully employed when you lack the time, resources, or data to pursue an alternative solution.
3. The no-choice argument.
Sometimes you want to make the case that there is no choice. There is a certain inevitably that demands that your agenda be pursued. Market pressures can be so specific that it is clear that if you do not react now, you will stumble. Fads and fashions may present a situation where there is no choice but to respond. Obviously, regulation can practically dictate what you can and cannot do. If the law or other regulation forces you to change your practice, then you have to change your practice. If you have no choice, you cannot be blamed for negative consequences.
When regulations are in play, the agenda mover has to take the position that there is no alternative. The pressure is such that decisive action must be taken. There is a sense that someone or something is pressuring for the change.
4. The community standards argument.
When using the community standards argument, you argue that you need to succumb to the high expectations of the larger community. This argument holds that it's better in the long term to do the right thing, even if there could be a short-term dent in the bottom line. The payoff will be greater customer loyalty or more community trust. Keep in mind that customers, clients, and the community may be very responsive to a decision to do the right thing. It is difficult for someone to challenge your agenda if everyone agrees it is the moral course of action. Many people are dismissive of the community standards argument. Often, I have heard organizational leaders push their agendas with the refrain of "people expect it of us" and I have been surprised (pleasantly) by the power of this argument.
The challenge for an agenda mover, in trying to get initial support, is to smartly balance the four arguments. I've often found it to be the case that it pitching an idea, making the cost-benefit argument may get you in the door and it may take you a good way down the road, but it won't carry the day. You have to give your potential supporters a bit of security by at least hinting at some notion of best practices. You have to give them a sense social and political importance of your agenda by using the regulatory and the community standards arguments. By combining and balancing these arguments correctly, you will gain support for your agenda.