Getting bright ideas accepted

 

It hits you in the middle of the night or in the shower. It’s the next big thing: that revolutionary idea that’s going to increase productivity, reduce costs and catapult your career into the stratosphere.

    Your pitch to management is enthusiastic and energetic. You brace yourself to be doused in the praise and applause that your genius has warranted.

    But instead there is indifference and scepticism. Your colleagues are even less receptive, and some are actively hostile to your ideas. After a month or two your concept is relegated to the bottom of your priority list along with your confidence. You carry on with business as usual, figuring that it’s not worth the political consequences of forcing the issue. Besides, things aren’t that bad as they are.

    This type of story is seldom made public but I expect that it is extremely common. The sad fact is that resistance to change is an incredibly powerful force in the corporate world. It suffocates innovation and results in billions of dollars in lost opportunity.

    Unfortunately, aspiring corporate innovators can’t just blame myopic managers and intransigent co-workers for their ideas ending up in the bin. We must accept that resistance to new ideas is the norm rather than the exception. Once we accept this, it becomes clear that coming up with great ideas is just the first part of the job and that the burden of gaining acceptance sits largely with us.

    This is actually a problem, since the traits that are found in people that produce the abstract thinking that results in novel concepts are often precisely the characteristics that make those same people unable or unwilling to drive those ideas past resistance into reality.

    Even when innovators do try to drive adoption themselves, there are often problems. Innovators tend to be early adopters. We typically assume that people think like us and will be as excited by new technologies and methodologies as we are. Since this assumption is usually spectacularly wrong, our implementation approaches are sometimes doomed from the outset.

    In this article, I offer some strategies that I have discovered over a decade of trying and often failing to gain acceptance for new ideas in a corporate environment.

projects, not programmes 

It’s tempting to embark on ‘grand visions’, but managers expect results. It’s easier to demonstrate value using new ideas and techniques on specific projects rather than trying to set up a system and then coerce people into using it.

    The professional process design life cycle is still fairly tedious with lethargic feedback loops between several departments, including process design, cost estimation, utility design and so on. ‘Optimisation’ involves running half a dozen discrete cases and picking the best one based on some proxy for economic performance, such as product yield. Integrated, more rigorous approaches are possible but are often avoided because they’re difficult to implement with the ‘standard’ tools that are used for process design.

    Several years ago, I started an initiative for a general tool that could incorporate all aspects of design – mass and energy balances, capital cost, operating expenses and investment models – under one umbrella.

    We spent 18 months working on a modelling framework that was general, extensible, and in many ways, quite elegant. We figured we would be saving the company hundreds of millions once everyone got on board.

    However, that was our fatal flaw. We had not thought about a clear path to getting the tool embedded into everybody’s workflow. In effect, we would be asking many people to completely give up the tools they use every day to make a living and shift to something new. We figured the beauty of the system would be self-evident; it’s the reason we were prepared to move to the new tool after all. Many colleagues simply refused to use an unfamiliar tool. We received dismal performance evaluations because management saw no bottom-line impact for all our efforts. They wanted to see tangible value and not a general framework, no matter how elegant it may have been.

    That shock caused a shift in strategy. We stopped ‘selling the framework’ and began applying the tool exclusively in some smaller but commercially-important projects.

    Initially productivity still appeared lower as we ironed out the usual technical issues that arise whenever one adopts a new competency but our persistence soon started paying dividends. We were able to integrate process, utility and economic models into a single holistic view of our designs. Rigorous optimisation of our designs, in terms of the variables that matter (dollars and cents) became possible for the very first time.

    Ostensibly we were doing the same job – process design – but the depth of insight and the design search space we could cover in the same amount of time began to grow significantly. Today, we’re confident that holistic design can offer capital savings of 20% or more on new process designs with even larger value to be discovered through holistic integration of previously disparate systems such as process and utilities. We haven’t won over everybody yet, but interest is growing and the ‘method in our madness’ is becoming apparent.

work top-down and bottom-up

Getting visible buy-in from a key senior manager is possibly the single greatest predictor of success for getting new ideas accepted.

    In 2003, we tried to implement an internal wiki within our department to foster collaboration and knowledge sharing. Besides an enthusiastic uptake from the usual set of early adopters, the initiative was an abject failure. Very few people were interested in making their hard-gained knowledge publicly available with no apparent benefit. The whole exercise was abandoned after a few months.

    A few years later, the idea cropped up again. A new team leader wanted to establish a wiki, and the way the conversation was going, I could tell that he was travelling the same doomed path we had already cleared. But I still believed that the idea was solid, and began to think about why the project failed in the past. This time round, we made two key changes.

    To push people up the learning curve, he made it a requirement for his team to use the wiki for weekly progress reports, instead of using email. There was general protest at this, but soon the team realised that this incurred no real administrative penalty on them. Overall, productivity improved because collating contributions into management reports was effectively being done on-the-fly. This small demonstration of the power of collaboration improved our chances of getting buy-in for more ambitious proposals later on.

     Secondly, we got the head of the department to change his weekly communication updates from a mass email to a blog entry on the wiki. The blog caused an explosion of interest and general acceptance that the wiki was the genuine article and not a toy for the ‘propeller heads’ to play with. Within a few months every single group in the department was using the wiki; often in massively creative ways that I had never envisioned.

    The bottom-up approach – getting your peers engaged with a new idea is important. However, to really claim success and get that highly influential ‘late-adopting’ segment to embrace change requires the top-down approach – a senior manager on board to visibly embrace a new idea.

       Getting senior management buy-in is quite simple, if the idea and the value-add is aligned with the strategy and vision of the corporation. Your entire pitch should be about making a clear link between the value your idea promises, and the strategic goals that a manager’s performance is based on. If it isn’t, you should think hard about whether your company is ready for your idea.

persistence and self-belief

Ultimately, getting support for new ideas requires a tremendous amount of energy, plenty of self-belief and a certain amount of bull-headedness. You will meet resistance. A lot of it. You need to ‘know that you’re right’ to stand up to that resistance. You need to accept that your performance reviews and career may suffer in the short term as you move along the learning curve and hit the inevitable roadblocks. Bringing new ideas into the corporate environment has a whiff of entrepreneurship about it and as such there are risks involved. Usually the long-term rewards are enough to compensate for them.

Cayle Sharrock is a senior process engineer at Sasol Technology and director of Nimbus Technologies

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