The Politics of Innovation
Office politics have a bad rap.
The phrase is typically used to refer to sleazy posturing, sucking up, and cutting others down to lift yourself up. All bad things. But politics doesn’t have to be a dirty word.
Politics is really about execution.
It’s about building consensus. Getting the right people on board. Moving your ideas through an organization in a structured, systematic way until they become a foregone conclusion.
Look at most organizations and you’ll find the people who rise the fastest are great politicians. In our time working with innovation teams, the ones who are able to overcome the massive barriers preventing change are ALWAYS gifted at politics.
It’s not a replacement for talent — you still have to be great at what you do. But given two people with the same skill level, the more gifted politician will win every time.
Here’s how to become one of them.
Stop Carpet Bombing Your Idea
You see it all the time. Someone has an idea. They open their email or Slack, write a couple paragraphs on the idea, hit send, and wait for the congratulations to pour in and the ball to start rolling.
What happens instead? Nothing.
This is carpet bombing your idea. You drop an idea on everyone else’s doorstep and expect them to take it and run with it. But they have other things they’re working on, other pressures they’re facing. The last thing they want to think about is how to make your fledgling idea happen.
An idea is worth precisely nothing without execution and hustle. If you want to see change happen, it’s going to have to start with you.
Build a reputation as a doer.
When your team is evaluating your idea, they’re not just thinking about the merits of the idea.
They’re asking themselves whether the idea will work (otherwise they’ll look bad), and they’re asking themselves if you’re the person to pull it off. If the answer to either of those questions is a no, the idea dies.
We’ll talk more about solving for the first question later. But to solve for the second, the answer is to become known in the organization as someone who gets things done. And the best way to do this is what I call Microvation.
Microvation is the process of taking little crappy tasks and turning them into something awesome. And what’s great is anyone can do it, regardless of level.
Picking up lunch? Turn it into a lunch & learn series and bring in smart people to learn from.
Printing out new employee paperwork? Turn it into an amazing onboarding experience for new hires to feel truly welcome.
Taking on customer support? Turn it into a project to have the best support site in the world, with forums, FAQs, and fanatically fast and helpful responses.
Writing a blog post? Turn it into the first step in a marketing automation process that drives more leads for the business.
Start small, execute well, and over time you’ll develop a reputation as someone who can make things happen.
Start with a story. Usually with pain.
My friend Craig Wortmann talks constantly about the power of story. People make emotional decisions, and use data to justify their choice. Stories hijack a part of our brain, make us sit up and listen, and stick in our minds long after the meeting ends.
The best stories for moving ideas forward start with pain. People respond more to fear of loss than the opportunity for gain. So paint a picture of how bleak things are, how you can’t possibly stay where you are. Make it clear it’s imperative the organization go from A to B.
Know your stuff cold.
Stories matter, but so does the evidence to back up the story. Before you start talking about your new idea, make sure you’ve got your case put together. Have good data backing you up, don’t be afraid to leverage the work of experts, or smart frameworks developed elsewhere. Anticipate the objections you’re likely to encounter.
A prototype is worth a thousand meetings.
Immediately begin working on a prototype of your solution. This can be a document, a presentation, a clickable demo, working software, whatever. And show the prototype to people before you think it’s ready.
Prototypes give people something to latch onto. They demonstrate there’s actual momentum — that there’s a “there” there.
Prototypes also provide opportunities for concrete feedback — which as you’ll see shortly is critically important.
Prepare to change your prototype 10 times, 100 times, 1000 times if necessary. Every change is a chance to improve the original concept, and as you’ll soon see a chance to recruit a supporter.
Find someone who’s willing to call you out. Even better, build a board.
When you really want to make things happen, you can quickly become blinded to the flaws in your thinking. It’s extremely helpful to have someone on your team (or outside of the organization) who can privately tell you when you’re full of crap. Better to have them tell you than have your boss kill the idea.
An even better approach is to cultivate a group. These could be old bosses, subject matter experts, or internal team members. They should know the industry enough to give candid feedback, and know you well enough to tell you when you’re about to lose control.
People are going to put up a fight if what you’re working on is worth doing. Change is upsetting.
But no matter how aggressively they try to kill your idea, no matter how poorly thought out their objections are, you must always keep your cool. Losing control of your emotions won’t improve the substance of your ideas.
Forget about credit.
Perhaps the most important rule in here. The people who are the best at building consensus know the key is to make others feel like it was their idea.
As you formulate your case, plan in advance for areas you’re willing to compromise on. There will always be some, and knowing in advance allows you to let others co-create your idea without losing it’s teeth.
In doing so, you give others a chance to feel some ownership. And people are much more likely to go to bat for their own idea than one they had no hand in.
Sell laterally (or down) before selling up.
Building a base of support is essential before trying to push an initiative up the food chain. You want to build a groundswell of people who’ve seen the concept, given feedback you’ve incorporated (making it their idea too), and letting them help you build enthusiasm.
When you do sell up, start in private.
Your boss is busy and has many things going on. They don’t want to be surprised in a big meeting with a new initiative that will require lots of change.
So begin your pitch before the pitch begins. By now you have a prototype that has been tested with internal or external people. You have a groundswell of people who are excited about the idea.
Once you have sufficient evidence, you introduce the idea in private. This gives your boss a chance to push back more gently, not worry about wasting everyone else’s time, and ideally provide feedback (that you of course incorporate).
Your job is to make your boss look good. So give them a nice package, backed by data. Let them tweak it so they feel ownership. And let them take the credit — they won’t forget, and most of the time they’ll pass the credit right back to you anyway.
Find a champion
A champion might be your boss, but often isn’t. They’re almost always above you. They’re someone who takes an interest in you, probably because they see a younger version of themselves.
Your champion will fight fights you don’t have the political capital to win. They’ll be a persuasive influence behind closed doors. They’ll tell you when it’s not worth pursuing, and they’ll go to bat for you when it is.
Don’t Hitch Your Wagon to One Horse
That said, you need a broader base of support. People change jobs, get promoted, get fired. Your champion might not be there forever. Make sure you have a broad group of people who want to see you be successful.
The best way to do this? Do what the best networkers in the world do — figure out what other people need and go out of your way to help them.
Shower your supporters with love
It’s commonly said it’s 8 times (or 10, or 12, or whatever) harder to get a new customer than keep a current one. And yet nearly every company makes the mistake of neglecting their supporters.
Don’t assume because they were intrigued initially they’re willing to expend political capital for you, especially if you don’t keep them in the loop as things progress.
Remind them how important they are. Keep them regularly updated. Take the time to grab a beer and ask for their advice and feedback.
Clients are powerful allies.
It’s easy to discount the ideas of other internal team members. It’s much more difficult to discount ideas of team members who have the support of clients. Keeping (or growing) revenue can be a powerful motivator to overcome inertia.
Don’t give them a stupid reason to say no.
Being the person who shows up late to every meeting hurts your political capital whether you know it or not. So does being a sloppy dresser, or being the “brings tuna fish for lunch” guy.
None of this has anything to do with the merits of your idea. But when evaluating your idea they’re bringing their perceptions of you as a person into the subconscious decision making process.
So show up on time. Do what you’ll say you do. Say please and thank you. Dress like someone who wants to make things happen. Don’t steamroll people. Don’t hog credit. Don’t constantly take personal calls in your office or hang on Facebook all day.
Pick up a box of nice stationery. Use it.
When someone (internal or external) lets you show them your prototype, thank them. When someone gives you feedback that makes the idea better, thank them. When someone recruits another ally, thank them. When someone goes to bat for you in a meeting and risks some of their own capital, thank them.
Brag. But not about yourself.
There’s nothing wrong with talking about the success your projects have. People like being associated with things that already have momentum — if you communicate the progress you’re making, you’ll find more people jumping on board.
But if you’re patting yourself on the back, you’ll rub people the wrong way. Again, give the credit to everyone else. As long as you direct the praise everywhere else but you, people will love to hear about the progress your initiative is making.
You’re in sales.
Everyone is a sales person. You’re selling your friends on where to go to dinner. You’re selling your spouse on plans for the weekend. And you’re sure as hell selling your internal team on this big idea that’s going to reinvent the company.
So become a student of it. Learn how to build rapport, how to uncover needs, how to position solutions, overcome objections, and follow up. Learn how to ask for the close.
Study great presenters. Watch TED Talks and Apple keynotes. Study the pacing, the progression, the pauses, the areas of emphasis, the division between emotional appeals and cold hard facts.
You’re in sales whether you think you are or not. The question is whether you’re good at it.
Listen to objections. REALLY.
Objections to your idea are not obstacles to barrel through. There are likely very legitimate holes. Truly listen when colleagues challenge you on points. Brainstorm with them on how those obstacles might be able to be overcome. Ask “if I can address this issue, will I have your support?”
Again — giving people the opportunity to co-create is one of the best tools in your toolbox. Once they touch it, it’s their idea too. Leverage that.
Make sure your rollout plan includes early wins.
Before the rollout, you’re selling the vision and everyone’s excited. But once the idea is in the real world and customers or internal team members are using it, the rubber meets the road.
Ideally you want your early launch to have some quick wins baked in. Plan for those in advance. While the initial pilot is primarily about learning and improving, you definitely want to be able to demonstrate the early returns are positive.
Don’t Go For The Home Run Swing.
It’s unlikely you’re going to get approval to do the full rollout. Nor should you try.
Take a page from the startup world. Do a limited launch. Be a concierge, hand-holding your beta testers through your new process. Collect their honest feedback. Patch up the parts of the process that are busted. Iterate and do it again.
The best initiatives look small early on. They have the air cover and lack of visibility to make their mistakes, take their lumps and improve before they’re ready for prime time.
The big launch sounds intoxicating. You’re on everyone’s radar, and your project is clearly designed to make a big dent in the way things are done at the company. But there’s a ton of carnage when projects are that visible. Your margin for error is tiny — and there’s almost always error.
Start small. Learn as much as you can. Get momentum. You’re much more likely to make a dent this way — it just might take longer.
Politics can be a force for good, for your company and your career.
You don’t have to use the power of politics for evil. You can use them to remove logjams, move important initiatives forward, and create lasting impact in your organization.
Stop pretending like politics doesn’t exist in your company. Stop acting like its inherently bad. Learn how to harness it to make great things happen.