Selling new ideas to an organisation

October 30, 2006

There has been much debate in ActKM on the subject of ROI for KM projects and the use of an idealistic end state (or Utopia) to sell Executives on a KM programme. I have been engaged in that debate and reflecting on it I realised that I have spent the majority of my life discovering and selling new things to skeptical executives. To my mind at least nine principles that apply if you want to be an innovator:

  1. You need to understand at a deep level the new concept, idea or technology and you have to believe that it will work. If you don’t then no one will believe it is possible. Humans have evolved to sniff out people who are obviously bluffing. Also if you get funding, then things will not work out the way you expected. If you understand your subject you can adapt, if you don’t then you are lost.
  2. Don’t be an evangelist rejecting all previous approaches and claiming that you have found the stairway to Heaven (Led Zeppelin have already been there) and that all others should repent their sins and join you on the path to righteousness. Firstly it will put people off and secondly you will be wrong anyway. Most existing things work, they are just limited in their applicability.
  3. Do make sure that you create some new language which differentiates your idea from other approaches and don;t compromise on maintaining that differentiation. People will want to pigeon hold you into something familiar, it may be tempting to accept but it leads no where. Complexity for example is confused with systems thinking. I used the word un-order as a way of distinguishing complexity approaches as it is familiar but different. It creates a boundary and humans like boundaries – they can see that there is something different on the other side.
  4. Find interpreters, ideally (i) an executive sponsor who can take your ideas and given them credibility and relevance to decision makers, and (ii) some people good at execution who will work with you on the first project. If you personally satisfy rule one then these are the most critical needs you have. The combination of a someone whose knowledge is impressive with business credibility is a powerful tool for change.
  5. Early adopters don’t want reference sites and case studies. If you are asked for these walk away, you are selling to people at the wrong stage of the idea’s life cycle. Read Moor’s Crossing the Chasm, one of the best books on marketing I know.
  6. Don’t sell a Utopia, you will just heighten expectations and then fail to deliver. Utopias are pretty static places anyway (read Huxley, Orwell or Koestler to see what I mean). Better to sell the possibility of a journey that might solve intractable or difficult problems and engage people in that journey.
  7. Funding is linked to delivery of projects and projects come into two main categories: safe-fail low cost experiments and fail-safe conventional ones. More fully described these are: (i) linked to a specific issue/opportunity/problem where the new concept can be show to have a positive impact on a business process or other objective, and where the impact of that initiative can be measured (either by positive impact or by the cost, opportunity or otherwise of not carrying out the work. ROI, EAV and other accounting measures can work here and you will need to to understand them and their application. (ii) a series of safe-fail experiments designed on a low cost basis to discover what is possible in an uncertain or complex environment (Probes) in which the probability of failure and the learning that can be achieved from failure is indicated.
  8. Book yourself on a basic sales course. One of the ones that teaches you how to make a cold call, secure an appointment, create pain, close a sale. There are a lot of skills there that you are going to need: silence is one of them!
  9. Even if at the end of the day you are proved right, don’t expect to be appreciated or to get the credit. If you do its a bonus. In over a decade in strategy I currently have a near 100% record in calling the new management ideas early, but even that track record did not guarantee that the next idea would be treated any less skeptically. People who want to be popular probably don’t have the ability to innovate.
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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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