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Why do bad things happen to good ideas?

May 11, 2016 Amy Showalter

Bloomberg Government regularly publishes insights, opinions and best practices from our community of senior leaders and decision makers. This column is written by Amy Showalter, part one of her series on influence and selling your ideas.

We’ve all been there. We’ve all had the brainstorm, the “big idea” that was sure to revolutionize our grassroots, PAC or lobbying outcomes. You shared it with your friends and network of trusted government relations professionals, and all agreed it was a proverbial slam dunk—your team and/or boss would be crazy, just crazy, to reject it. You crafted an outline of your idea and wrote carefully crafted talking points. You even included the holy grail of persuasion: a story, a story that illustrates the need to adopt your idea. But alas, after you presented it, your idea was dismissed with little consideration or discussion of its merits.

Why do bad things happen to good ideas?

Based on my observations from coaching and consultations with hundreds of capable government affairs professionals, my knowledge of upward influence strategies, as well as my own trials in the trenches, here’s why this happens, and how to reduce the chances of future idea bombs.

First, you have to understand that no matter your title or expertise, this dynamic is often an example of upward influence, and upward influence is different than peer to peer influence, managing / leading subordinates, and, God forbid, coercion.  That’s why the “10 ways to get to yes every time” rhetorical layup book and article titles don’t work. Influence is contextual, and upward influence requires special tactics.

Obsessive Belief in the Merits of Your Idea

You must remember that your idea(s) are considered politically as well as objectively. We often believe that our data and well-researched  arguments will persuade our audience, whether a committee, your boss, task force, or board members.   While I don’t recommend absorbing yourself in the soap opera that is organizational politics, it’s a reality. So envision the political support you need to succeed, and start working that in advance via vivid communications tactics. Remember, the great communicators are not afraid to communicate face to face, so deal with your potential supporters face to face.

Consider How You are Seen

In lieu of using the overused “brand” as a way to describe your workplace persona, I’m keeping it simple and referring to how you are seen inside your organization. How are you perceived?  Human beings notoriously look for mental short cuts when making decisions because we prefer predictability. Therefore, many of your colleagues are trying to figure out your persona so that they can predict your behavior and philosophy on work related issues. It’s never too early to make a decision on how you want to be perceived. How would your co-workers describe you? Is that consistent with how you want to be seen?

“Where You Are is Who You Were” – Build Patterns of Success

If you ever wonder why certain individuals are tapped to lead organizational change despite their lack of expertise or fit for that role, it’s because they have a track record of success in other areas. Organization leaders must limit the risk of giving those without a record of success the responsibility for major projects. They are less concerned with the project and more with the person who is responsible for implementing the change. So, “where you are is who you were.” You need to establish a pattern of accomplishment rather than relying on that one great project from three years ago.

Understand and Leverage Context

Context is an element of influence that refers to the environment and timing of your idea. Fair or unfair, timing is a larger factor in the acceptance of ideas than their worth. There rarely is a “right time” for a new direction, practice, or concept, but you have to be cognizant of this vital aspect of decision making. I tell prospects that they are right—there never is a good time to proceed with a new initiative, but rarely does waiting to institute new programs that accelerate your government relations outcomes have a good result. Bad things happen as time passes.

Also, good ideas don’t age, so don’t be intimidated by those who claim the concept was tried five years ago and didn’t work. Let the present need be your guide by showing how conditions have changed.

In my next column, I’ll share more advice, including the biggest challenge millennials face in getting their ideas accepted, and how to conquer it.

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