Remember the days of employee suggestion boxes, and managers who actually took to heart ideas that came from their staff?
Innovation is a key buzzword and employees everywhere are encouraged to embrace change and see fresh ways of doing business.
But all too often, innovative ideas seem to get short shrift from busy managers, said Allison Graham, principal of ElevateBiz.com in London, Ont.
"I would hope that managers are more open to fresh ideas. But in talking to senior leaders, I'm finding that, at the moment, many are so preoccupied … that they're not as open to listening to other people's ideas," she said.
"Even a few years ago, when you called someone to talk about an idea they were open to it. Nowadays, overloaded to-do lists and fear of wasting time don't allow for that same luxury," said Ms. Graham, author of From Business Cards to Business Relationships. (Read an excerpt here.)
Ms. Graham said she hears from frustrated employees that their suggestions are getting the cold shoulder, and that managers say they aren't available for meetings because they don't have time.
Speak to their needs
Managers will make the time to hear from you if you can offer a solution to a problem occupying their attention, Ms. Graham advised. "To break down resistance from managers to hearing your idea, start by communicating what is in it for them. You might phrase it as: 'You've mentioned you're concerned about this. I believe I have a solution that could take some stress off your plate."
It's not enough to have a vague idea about the target; you need to set sights on the bull's eye, Ms. Graham said. Start by recognizing a problem in the workplace and list concrete things that could be done to improve it. Develop a solution that answers the questions why, what, who, where and when.
Practice close encounters
Make your approach as direct as possible. "A memo sent by e-mail can all too often be ignored by people inundated by text messages. A personal approach will have more immediacy and appeal," Ms. Graham said.
That bit of advice might be a particular challenge for younger workers who are more used to texting and blogging than having face-to-face and telephone conversations, she noted. "People who are going to get ahead are going to have to get good at looking people in the eye."
It can help to practice explaining your idea to a friend, or before a mirror. This will help you be confident, clear and succinct in getting your message across.
Look from outside in
As an employee, one effective way to approach innovation is to adopt a consultant-like mentality, said Karen Kelloway, Halifax-based business coach and author of Nail It! Six Steps to Transform Your Career.
If you have been employed by your company for a long time, putting on the "outside consultant" hat can help you become more curious and open to new ideas.
If you were a consultant, what would you do differently, and how would you prepare a presentation about the ideas you have? She suggests stepping back to look beyond your own role to the company as a whole. Know what your expertise is and what you might be able to add if you had the opportunity.
Reopen the discussion
If you have been given the cold shoulder for an idea in the past but you still believe it has merit, don't give up. There are ways to revive the idea by refining it and the potential outcomes that might make management more receptive.
Know what the barriers to success are and be prepared with ideas about how to get around them. "Ask your manager open-ended questions such as: What are the possibilities with this? How can I help move this forward," Ms. Kelloway said. "You need to put yourself in management's shoes and understand why they're saying no."
Be a pain reliever
Your role is to help your boss get done what needs to be done, as painlessly as possible, said Steve Roesler, principal of the Steve Roesler Group, a New Jersey-based consulting firm that researches innovation. "Look around and see who is experiencing pain right now and ask yourself: How can my idea help alleviate some of that?"
Learn the shortcuts
Another common tripping point is that people don't spend enough time developing organizational savvy – learning the often informal pathways through which ideas tend to travel in the organization, and how decisions get made, Mr. Roesler said. "Every company has written rules and organization charts that often bear little resemblance to the way things actually get done. … If you're not clear who needs to be sold on the idea, go to someone who has a lot of experience in the company and ask."
Build a following
When people hit on a good idea, they often promote it as the final product, Mr. Roesler said. "Step back and consider who in the hierarchy is going to be most directly affected by this idea. Approach those people individually and say, 'I've got an idea, I'd like to hear your thoughts and how it would impact you.'"
By the time it comes to deciding to adopt the idea, the people who will have to make it work will feel a sense of ownership.
It takes strategy to grab the attention of distracted managers, according to Steve Roesler, principal of the Steve Roesler Group. Here are some key phrases to entice four basic managerial types to tune in to your idea:
They pay attention to what others are doing and thinking. You need to provide proof that others support your ideas.
Key phrases to use
- The benchmarking companies have implemented …
- Top experts in our field say …
- Trends now show that …
These people want facts, stats and supporting evidence. You will be questioned, so be prepared with more details.
Key phrases to use
- This is the best choice … (and here’s why)
- Here are the numbers.
- This analysis offers proof.
These folks are bored by routine. Watch them leap into action when you present your ideas as barriers to be overcome.
Key phrases to use
- The system isn’t working.
- It’s too late (or too early) to change.
- They can’t afford to do what really needs to be done.
They want to improve their situation every day. Show them how your idea benefits both the organization and them personally.
Key phrases to use
- Here’s how we can increase profitability.
- This would make us more effective at managing.
- This could help us leapfrog barriers.