How to pitch an innovation to a risk averse manager

Engagement Lab is not just about creating original community engagement projects, it’s about how to pitch those projects to managers and get a ‘yes’

“I’m happy to give it a go. Put a bit of budget on it and see how it goes. If it doesn’t work we won’t do it again.” – council waste manager, Hunter region

It’d be wonderful if all managers spoke like this about their staff’s original ideas. But most managers are, well, managers.
grumpy manager.jpg
So you’ve got this amazing, cool, gigantically engaging project idea, and you want your manager to sign off on it.
This is where your beautiful new tyre hits the hard asphalt of institutional reality. You’ve convinced your team – but they think like you do. Now you have to convince someone who doesn’t think like you do. This will probably be your biggest single hurdle. If you can convince your manager, you’re well positioned to convince others.
Think about your manager’s world: she has a small amount of power and autonomy, and it’s fragile. She’ll need to justify her decision to sceptical executives above her. And they are in just the same situation. They also have small amounts of fragile autonomy.
And, as you know, she’s very busy and has virtually no cognitive bandwidth to spare.
What you’ve got working for you is that your manager has problems she needs help to solve. And the terrible secret that all managers have (but can’t talk about) is that they know they are crap at achieving some of their critical goals. This is the capacity gap you can use to frame a successful sign-off. Managers are open to anything that increases their capacity to meet wobbly KPIs. But it has to be safe!
Now we can see a strategy for pitching our idea. Although our idea is WORLD-SHAKINGLY REVOLUTIONARY, we must temper that vision and instead pitch it as a safe, low-risk way to progress our managers’ immediately salient goals. And we need a crisp, instantly comprehensible description that that our manager can intuitively understand and sell up the chain.
And we have just 3 minutes to do it.
So let’s get some practice, using this 7 step formula:
Step 1) Open with a 10 second elevator pitch. Describe the idea and the outcome in 10 seconds or 25 words. Make it clean and simple. The outcome has to be one that overlaps with your manager’s KPIs.

“A 2 week community reporting blitz to create a snapshot of backyard dumping in Bondi.”

Step 2) State the need. In one paragraph, write a crisp problem statement. If you have some metrics, mention them.

“We’ve had 17 complaints of waste dumping in Bondi back streets in the last 12 months. But we have no idea of the real extent, of what’s being dumped, and who’s dumping it. We need a clear picture so we can devise a response. Yet we don’t have the staff to go out and check.”

Step 3) Sketch the innovation. How does it work? Sketch the mechanics of your idea. Conjure a word-picture. Better still, draw a real picture so the manager can instantly visualise the elements and how they work together.

“We’ll ask joggers to snap photos of waste dumped and send them to a council SMS number. That will gives us a quick visual database of rubbish dumped, geocoded and dated. To encourage participation, we’ll offer free coffee vouchers for the first 50 individuals who send in photos.”

And show them a picture.
dumping blitz.jpg
Step 4) What’s the ask? What, exactly, is the size of the bet you’re asking your manager to make?

“We’ll need $1500 for printing and coffee vouchers. We’ll need 3 days each for 2 staff to organise the prototype.”

Step 5) Any evidence this idea has worked elsewhere? If so, mention it. If you have metrics from successful precedents, present them.
Step 6) How you’ll manage the risks. How will you constrain the investment to make it a small, safe, bet? Think: limited time, compact location, small budget. Or start with rapid prototyping: a small, safe, test of concept, carried out swiftly, with very basic resources.

“We’d like to prototype the idea with 4 of our own staff who are joggers. Then test the idea with local joggers, on a limited basis, in Barney St and Janis Lane, for a two week trial. We’ll assess the results and report back to you.”

Step 7) Now be silent. Leave it to them. People actually have to talk themselves into change. Your silence will invite a response. They’ll ask some questions. A conversation will occur. They’ll test out their fears and you’ll have the answers (because you rehearsed them).

To maximise your chances

Rehearse. Rehearse. Rehearse the pitch in front of an audience. Practice answering the kind of questions you’re manager is likely to ask.
Get allies. Ask respected people in the organisation to support your pitch
Have reputational credit. Sometimes it’s important to be patient and wait until you have wins in the organisation before you propose significant changes.
Put them in the driving seat. Since autonomy is scarce for your manager, they relish it. So, share control. Don’t make it a ‘pitch’ or ‘request’. Make it “We’d like your input into an idea.” Then take on their input.
Don’t argue or disagree. Argument causes resistance. Placing a manager under pressure is the surest route to ‘no’.
Use Google. Have a good look around for similar ideas in similar organisations. If others have succeeded, the risks look smaller to your manager. If a lot have succeeded, then you can utilise a powerful motivator: fear of missing out.
And don’t forget to keep them in the loop. If they agree to go ahead, immediately schedule the first check-in meeting (in say 2-3 weeks). Keep them briefed, in person, regularly, and keep inviting their input.

Your language: it should be positive, succinct, definite

A pitch should be succinct, lacking waffle and expressed in quietly assertive language.
The future tense is good: “We will” is always preferable to the weak “we would”.
The client wants to know you’re confident and in control.
Avoid: “We could…” or “We’re thinking of…” or “Maybe…”.
Say: “We will produce… “We will deliver… “We will implement….”
Use concrete language; avoid abstractions eg. Don’t say “Key target groups”, say “People who will participate”.
More on pitching innovations to managers
Sick of Hearing Your Boss Saying “No”? (10 Ways to Make Him Say “Yes!”), Guerris de Ternay, Contriber
How to sell an idea to your boss, Roberto Verganto, Harvard Business Review
Unleashing Breakthrough Innovation in Government, Nikhil R. Sahni, Maxwell Wessel, & Clayton M. Christensen, Stanford Social Innovation Review