Electronic Design

Sell Your Ideas To Your Colleagues

Many of us who toil in the trenches have some definite opinions on our product or service, how we perform our jobs, and what we should do differently, now and in the future. Yet, in an existence that appears to strangely mirror Dilbert's, our company seems to go on as it always did, without any response to our suggestions and complaints.

Sometimes it seems impossible to bridge the gap between our ideal product, workplace, or other aspect of our job, and the decisions and directions that our company takes. Still, we all try to improve our projects or working conditions, even though we have no idea how they became so bad to begin with. The managers, starting with our own boss, resist even the suggestion of change, while our colleagues don't even act as if they notice that things could be improved.

Now then, you think that you can do better? Well, yes, most of us can point to decisions and the individuals who stymie our plans, turn away our suggestions for improvement, and are deaf to our complaints. Despite our best efforts, our ideas for better products and administrative policies bring no change.

Maybe your idea is technical in nature. It might be something as simple as a design adjustment that shaves a few cents off the manufacture of a power supply. Perhaps it could improve the reliability of a piece of testing equipment. Your idea could also be as large as a new product design concept that would thrust the company into a new and exciting market.

Or possibly, there are administrative or lifestyle issues within the company that require improvement. This could range from such policies as office attire or working hours, to improving the ability to hire and retain engineers. In either case, you're attempting to change an existing practice or the status quo. This may sound like a difficult and futile task, though both projects and policies change all the time.

Not all employers and managers lack the ability to understand the need for change. Some are mercifully open to new concepts and ideas, listen and understand employee needs, and do what is in their power to address concerns or bring about better products and services. Often this is a function of the corporate culture, where hiring and promoting have been based on the ability to collaborate and assist subordinates to better achieve their potential. Sometimes, even in the worst corporate cultures, it's possible to find an enclave of openness and honesty.

Unfortunately, a great number of employers don't fall into this category. Many of us have too much experience working within a corporate culture that continues to value the status quo, failing to listen to and accept new ideas and ways of thinking. After all, that's what allows many companies to succeed, while others fail.

Still, even in the most hidebound organization, it's possible for employees to have their ideas for product, service, or workplace improvements be acknowledged, seriously considered, and even implemented. But your ideas will not be accepted if they're presented emotionally. Your ideas must be given only after you have carefully thought about how they can potentially affect the company, its managers and employees, and its customers.

A question that begins "Why can't we ....?" may sound good to you, but it fails to create or pinpoint the need for any action among your colleagues or managers. Most people are fairly satisfied with the status quo, due to its familiarity. People don't have to think too much about what they do today when it's what they did yesterday. This holds true for even seemingly simple things like what time you must arrive at work in the morning.

Instead of beginning with such a question, you have to first identify the reason why you're making a suggestion. Perhaps you will be able to lay the groundwork over a period of days or weeks, but do your homework prior to that. Your idea might have just come to you out of the blue. Then again, you may have thought of it after observing some deficiencies in your product compared to a similar one at a previous employer. Ultimately, your colleagues and managers must be able to relate your idea to a real need if it's to get off the ground.

In the case of a product design change, for example, you should research similar products to see how those implement the design or feature. If a change can provide a competitive advantage, or at least bring about parity, your case can more easily be made. In the situation of administrative policy change, find out what other companies in the area are doing. While none of this means that you should copy other products or companies, they do provide a good perspective for introducing your own ideas.

Keep in mind also that this doesn't mean your idea must address some problem that's apparent to everyone. It's easier, however, to get a receptive audience when you can show how something could be done better and immediately. If your idea hit you out of the blue, you should determine how implementing it will benefit the company in a concrete way. No company will adopt a new concept, spending perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars implementing it, without a definite notion of what payback will come from it.

After you clearly state the problem or need, you then have to describe how your idea addresses it. For others to accept your idea, you will have to be able to relate it to the problem you've identified. That relationship may be clear to you. But others, used to working with the same designs or administrative policies every day over a period of years, might lack the perspective needed to "think out of the box."

This is where most new ideas go awry. You could have a great new product idea or a way to add innovative new features to an existing product, while the company, concerned with profit and loss, will not invest in even the most exciting technology before understanding its market's reaction to it. Just as you've clearly stated the problem, you also have to prove the beneficial relationship between the concepts in your idea and the different aspects of the problem.

At this juncture, enthusiasm and other positive emotions are important in selling your idea. It's vital that others know that you believe in your proposal. But, it's the presence of facts and statistics that will send your proposal over the top.

It's very probable that you won't understand all implications of your idea and, therefore, you won't have all the correct answers. It's important, hence, to be upfront about the limitations or drawbacks of your idea. No solution is perfect, and you shouldn't pretend that yours is any different. If you don't acknowledge the limitations or drawbacks of your idea, your colleagues will place less trust in your abilities. It will become apparent that your idea isn't infallible.

Maintaining objectivity may be hard when evaluating the positive and negative aspects of your own ideas, especially if you've already invested time and effort to develop them. Try to view your ideas from a fresh perspective, perhaps after setting them aside for a few days. Alternatively, show them to a friend outside of your workplace, someone who will be more objective, and yet less threatening. Then, present your ideas to the crowd at work.

By shedding light on and acknowledging the limitations of your idea upon its presentation, you provide others with the opportunity to participate. As no solution is perfect, there's no solution that couldn't be improved on by others. Just because you've come up with a solution to either a technical or administrative problem doesn't mean that it's ideal. Some people are less able to create better ways of doing things than they are of making those ways practical and efficient. Once started on the right track, your colleagues will lend enormous help to the refinement of your thoughts.

The biggest barrier in the way of this step is ourselves. When we think that we have come up with the best solution, we're often reluctant to acknowledge our limitations and accept the contributions of others. Plus, it's difficult to sit and listen to what may often be ill-informed criticisms or suggestions that make the idea less appealing.

Don't take the attitude that something should either be done your way, or else not at all. In some cases, your colleagues' suggestions will make your concept worse, but in many instances they will make it better. And in every situation, some action will result, which is far better than no actvity. After your company has shown itself capable of change, further ideas will be much easier to approve and implement.

Sharing The Credit
Once you let others evaluate and contribute to your ideas, you also have to share the credit. Ideas in the workplace rarely result from a breakthrough by a single individual. The idea could develop from a brainstorming session by a group, through informal conversations with others, or it could build on what others have already suggested. Though it may not seem obvious to you, your idea was probably helped along by those around you.

Generosity toward credit for a good or successful idea is not only justified by realities, but it's critical to the success of the idea. People are more likely to support an idea if they have an ownership stake in it. People also are more likely to freely credit you with the original idea if they helped to develop it.

This sharing of credit also spreads the fallout on ideas that don't pan out. If your entire group bought into your idea and helped implement it, then there's no single person to blame any failings on. Failure still carries a stigma in many companies, so minimizing your association with it could give you other chances to contribute in the future.

What if you lose control over the idea, and your manager or someone else higher up in the corporate hierarchy claims ownership? This can be one of the most personally difficult circumstances to deal with, but you have to remember that your own value is more than a single successful idea. Others are usually aware of your contribution, and your stock will rise among those who stood to gain the most from your idea.

Remember that this only happens over a period of time. You can't expect an immediate personal return on your idea, even if it was highly successful and directly associated with you. Your company, like any institution, is less than perfect. It may sometimes fail to recognize meaningful contributions, just as it does meaningless ones. It might take years to gain the acknowledgement and respect of your peers and managers.

Further, don't assume that you can just stop thinking of new concepts and ideas at this point. A successful career is made up of hundreds or thousands of ideas and suggestions that are just like the one you helped to implement in your company. Far too many professionals think that one single successful idea or project early in their career entitles them to continued respect for the next twenty years. You're not a "one-shot wonder." Only by demonstrating that you contribute every time you have the opportunity to do so, can you gain the credibility to continue selling your ideas to your colleagues and managers.

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