Seven little-known ways to sell your ideas

If an idea is good, it will be bought, right? Wrong. The world is not as Kant desired it and humans are not perfectly rational.

The reality of decision-making is that it isn’t based solely on the facts. Sure, decision-makers will ask for all the data they can get their hands on, will weigh the pros and cons, and they will look at the trade-offs, but when it comes down to call-time, other non-rational reasons come into play. And that makes persuading people more an art than a science.

No other member of the business class is possibly more aware of this than the CIO. That’s thanks to the nature of IT and IT projects. IT projects bring significant–and often frequent–changes to large swathes of the enterprise, making change management among the most important skills for IT leaders.

Also, in many organizations, especially those in which IT is seen as an enabler, the CIO needs to dip into the budgets of other departments to build a CRM, for example–but has to convince business owners to spend their money in a way that IT wants. And even in companies where IT departments do have sizable budgets of their own, it needs to be spent–and justified to the top brass–on projects that are hard to sell like security, consolidation, or IT staff training.

CIOs also have possibly the most number of audiences to convince, compared to their peer group–often with the least authority. “There are at least five categories of people that IT leaders have to convince,” says Anuragi Raman, associate director, BPEX deployment leader and head-IT at Motilal Oswal Securities.

They could, for instance, be a business peer who proposes a less-than-visionary way of getting business intelligence, but whose budget a CIO needs to spend. (It might be their money and their project, but it’s your IT architecture.) Or a chief executive who doesn’t want to release funds to fight off a security threat he doesn’t think is serious. Or it could be the hundreds of staffers who refuse to use a new ERP; a vendor who won’t budge; a business partner, like a dealer, who won’t align his systems to yours.

To coax the crowd, CIOs have picked up tricks you won’t find in business manuals. Sometimes their advice can seem completely counter-intuitive. Take this for example: To sell your ideas you need to avoid a decision and the decision-maker. Or you mustn’t be passionate about your ideas. Or how it’s okay to be politically incorrect, because if you want to watch your ideas spin into shape, like a jar on a potter’s wheel, you need to get your hands in the clay.
Here are seven little-known win-over ideas you won’t find in management books, lessons that aren’t celebrated in public forums, but rather exchanged in hushed whispers from one CIO to another.

Don’t Present

We’ve been trained to put a lot of effort into making elaborate presentations, brimming with figures and complicated-looking graphs. They’ll take you seriously, a voice in your head says.

But here’s the truth: It is a bad idea. For two reasons. First, because the ‘presenting-mindset’ puts you, inherently, in a supplicant’s position. It’s a lower and less-tactical position with respect to the people you are trying to persuade. “Gone are the days when CIOs had to get ‘buy-in’. Today, we have discussions,” says Rajeev Batra, CIO, MTS India.

Second, people put far too much effort in ‘presenting an idea’, and, in the process, lose the idea behind the idea. “People tend to have a very high dependency on PPTs,” says Anita Shantaram, a corporate trainer and educator who runs workshops for the likes of Infosys, Reliance Industries, L&T, Godfrey Phillips, Lupin, among others. “Try supposing that your CEO says he doesn’t have time, and asks you to get into his car and tell him your idea on his way to the airport. Most people would fail there at that.”

The lesson? Your idea is bigger than the presentation. The presentation should essentially follow the buy-in and not precede it.

“If you’re not able to articulate the value of your idea without PPTs, you’re not going to be able to sell anything,” says Parakh Dave, CIO & CTO, Future Group.

Dave should know. Having worked with a diverse range of companies in the US, China and India, Dave’s been presenting ideas to decision-makers at companies like the Aditya Birla Group, and A S Watson, the world’s largest health and beauty retailer with over 9,500 stores in 33 markets. Dave believes the ‘presentation mindset’ undermines the credibility of the CIO within the organization. “If your CEO or the executive management board trusts you, you don’t need to sell your idea. But you need to build that trust,” he says.

That’s the kind of trust Dave has built with his boss Rakesh Biyani, joint-MD, Pantaloon Retail India. (See how Biyani bought into one of Dave’s ideas, turn to page 48) “With such a vast experience in retail, he underst ands how IT can contribute to the retail business better than most. We trust his judgment,” says Biyani.

For Dave, building a close relationship with the most important people in the organization is key to winning their trust and approval–not a PowerPo int presentation with 50 slides. “Most of my ideas are closed after a 10-15 minute discussion with my CEO,” says Dave.

Fifteen minutes was all it took, for instance, to sell a new point of sale system across the group–during the recent recession when capex purchases were the new evil. “We do hundreds of projects spanning the group. If I had to spend time presenting my ideas to each of the lines of business, I’d get nothing done!” says Dave.

Skip the Decision Maker

If you want to get an idea approved, go to the decision maker. It’s common sense, right? It isn’t. Ask any salesperson.

Salespeople know that one of the best ways to make a sale is to build an environment for their product. If they were trying to sell something to a CIO, for example, their first point of attack would be the people CIOs depend on to make decisions, people lower down the line who deal with the nitty-gritty’s of technology and who the CIO will depend on for their decisions. Building an environment is also why DeBeers, for instance, spent significant amounts of money for almost a century creating demand for diamond jewellery, although they only sell rough diamonds. It’s only in 2001 that it created jewellery of
its own.
It’s a strategy that came handy when Srikanth Mattipalli, IT director at Tyco International (India), moved back to India from the US office of the $17 billion-plus provider of electronic security and fire protection products.

When Mattipalli relocated some things didn’t change–and a lot did. While he still reported to his old boss, he was thrown into an entirely new team. He says that getting buy-in from his boss wasn’t a challenge, but getting his peers on board with his ideas was another ballgame altogether.

His advice for someone trying to get buy-in from a bunch of people you don’t have credibility with? “Involve mid-level managers and they’ll sell the idea for you,” he says.

That’s exactly what he did when he wanted to float an idea to improve Tyco India’s price productivity. “Traditionally, the view at Tyco was that to improve price productivity you had to cut costs. But there’s a limit to how much you can lower your costs while keeping quality constant,” he says.

His alternative was to institute a new value system at Tyco India: Figure out what the market will pay for your products and work backwards from there. But to make his case he needed historical data, which required collaboration from multiple departments including marketing, sales, and finance. The conditions were not exactly favorable: He was a CIO who had returned to India after spending many years abroad and was trying to change how things were done. Resistance
was natural.

“Reluctance to change is inevitable. My IT support can’t even get me to switch to a wireless keyboard!” he says. So, instead of trying to win over his peers, he had a series of meetings with the mid-level management across the organization. “If you get the tactical management on your side, they will push their top level and also push down to the operations managers. They will sell your idea for you,” he says.

It’s also important, he says, to share credit. “Don’t be a glory-seeking CIO. Ultimately, you have to keep the business in the limelight.”

Fear Isn’t the Key. Envy Is

There are a number of emotions people can evoke when they are trying to convince people to see things their way, and each has its pros and cons. One of the most popular emotions is fear. It’s what president Bush used to impel Americans to attack Iraq, when he brought up the specter of WMDs, for instance.

Fear could have been the key when Harish Bhavanasi, director information services, UST Global, leading provider of consulting, outsourcing and end-to-end IT services for Global 1000 companies, went to his board with a proposal to create a disaster recovery site. A proposal that was shot down. Twice.

The idea was stopped stone cold by one of the classic idea-killers, according to John Kotter, co-author of Buy-In. Saving Your Good Idea from Being Shot Down: “We’ve been successful; why change?”

At that point, Bhavanasi could have chosen to use fear, uncertainty and doubt, a.k.a. FUD and he certainly wouldn’t have been the first CIO to do it. He could also have chosen to use FUD tactic when he needed approval for a core switch, given how hard it is to articulate the business value of IT-infrastructure projects.

“CIOs have a tendency to scare people. If we don’t do this something bad will happen is the way that conversation goes,” says Bhavanasi.

But although FUD is the easiest way to win approval, it isn’t the best way to do it. Kotter points out how research has proven that although fear will get people to move, it’s not an emotion that will carry them far enough to see a decision through–although happiness is.

There’s another emotion that CIOs can bank on when trying to win approval and that’s envy. Envy makes people aim high. And that’s what Bhavanasi was going for.

“Bring in case studies from competitors. Play on envy. In the long run it works better than threatening them of an impending disaster,” Bhavanasi.

Bhavanasi talks from experience. With the case of the core switch, for example, he roped in external consultants and a vendor and with their help built a solid case study–based on a company he know the business followed closely. The case didn’t highlight how the company would’ve suffered if it didn’t cough up for the switch, it showed how it could speed up the company’s network, boost the business and rake in revenues. It worked.

Something along similar lines worked for the disaster recovery site, says Bhavanasi. He says his suggestion for a disaster recovery site fell on deaf ears till the head of sales got a whiff of what had happened to a competing firm when they lost some customer data following a disaster. “What would happen if something like this happened to us?” he asked the firm’s chief IT-architect during a conversation over lunch. “We won’t be able to save the data,” said architect reported faithfully.

Within a month a disaster recovery budget was approved.

Remember, Politics is Part of the Game

Love it, or hate it, you have to play the game of politics. And there are a whole of lot characters you will have to deal with. In his book, Kotter breaks down the people who will kill your ideas into eight categories. These are Pompus Meani and Lookus Smarti (will kill a good idea if it makes them seem more important by doing it). Heidi Agenda (who has secret agendas she wants to keep safe). Bendi Wendi (who will side with the party that seems to be winning. Allis Welli and Avoidus Riski (who like the status quo and hate change). Divertus Attenti (who likes changing the focus of a problem). And Spaci Cadetus (who imagines ridiculous problems).

You cannot avoid the Avoidus Riskis and Pompus Meanies in your workplace. But you can, however, learn how to deal with them. “Ignore the loud mouths, and focus on the people who really need to be involved. You don’t need to please everyone,” says Jitendra Singh, CIO, Hyderabad Industries, the flagship company of the C.K. Birla Group of Companies and manufacturer of fibre cement roofing.

Singh might not be aware of it, but his advice constitutes some form of politics and to a keen observer resembles what lobbyists do for a living: Forget democracy, focus on the people who can create change.

There is another type of politics CIOs need to be aware of–the politics of the Heidi Agenda, or people with hidden agendas. Given the push and pulls between different departments, today’s enterprises are filled with executives with ulterior motives. And then there are much saltier stories. One CIO who has requested anonymity, shares how he fought tooth-and-nail to get a project approved but kept bumping heads against one stakeholder who refused to budge. “We later found out he was personally involved with the vendor. Apparently, everyone knew about it, but confronting him would’ve been political suicide,” he says.

A play-it-safe attitude might make you diplomatic-leader of the year, but it certainly won’t help too many of your ideas see the light of day. Sometimes politics and the aggression that comes with it is the only way to get the job done.
“Sometimes confrontation becomes necessary. It’s not necessarily a bad thing if you do it right. Confrontation is like saying, “I’m making an attempt to understand your point. Let’s bring the issues out in the open and discuss it,” says Shantaram. “Human dynamics are complicated. It’s better to confront issues. Confronting doesn’t mean fighting. If you push a problem under the carpet once, be sure it will happen again.”

Tame Your Passion

It’s true, your passion could be your biggest enemy. While Shantaram encourages confrontation, she warns against the dangers of coming across as zealous or passionate. “Being too passionate about your ideas may put people off; people will feel you’re sold out to the idea and are blind to its flaws and pitfalls,” she says.

It’s a lesson Kersi Tavadia, CIO at BSE, the world’s largest exchange in terms of listed companies, applied when he wanted to float the proposal for the purchase of security software at a previous organization. He believed in the need for greater security enough to meet head-on rejection for months, but he never let his zealousness show. Instead, he patiently built awareness on the subject and highlighted the need of information security through workshops and seminars.
“Sometimes you just have to wait for the right time. Being ultra-passionate or possessive about your ideas labels you as glory-seeker and not a team player,” says Tavadia.

There’s another downside to being ultra-passionate, says CIOs. It makes taking rejection hard and can therefore affect working relationships.

“I have seen that when people are too emotionally charged with an idea they find it difficult to move on when faced with rejection,” says Tavadia. “Rejection fosters a lot of negativity and you find those people who are too hung-up on past rejections are unable to participate wholeheartedly and co-operate in future projects.”

He suggests a more realistic approach “Two out of every 10 projects don’t get past approval. There will always be new ideas to implement. You need to learn to move on.”

Don’t Seek a Decision

That’s right, one of the ways to get a decision for a project you really want is not to seek it.

It’s a piece of advice that will come increasingly handy for all CXOs including CIOs in a world where there is never enough information to make a decision. The alternative, one that CIOs have mastered with proof-of-concepts, is to say ‘let’s give it a swing,’ and create momentum until you have a de facto yes.

It’s a covert, back-door-entry way to get things done, but it works.

“You can’t always expect to get closure in the very first meeting. Sometimes, just getting your foot in the door will suffice. As the project gains momentum other things will fall into place,” says UST Global’s Bhavanasi.

That tactic worked beautifully when Bhavanasi wanted to introduce a new lead-to-order system to speed up his firm’s sales process. Salespeople were, only naturally, less-than-enthusiastic about the idea because it could have exposed flaws to their existing system. “Let’s give it a shot and see,” suggested Bhavanasi, who backed his strategy by finding a sponsor from the finance team to champion the project.

Then a few months down the line something potentially disastrous happened: The sponsor moved out to a different department. But, by then, sales had already seen the first benefits and were more encouraged, says Bhavanasi. “Eventually, we got a new sponsor from the sales team, who drove it to finish,” he says.

The lesson? Don’t try to win buy-in upfront and in the first meeting. Your objective is to get them listening. Once you’ve got the ball rolling, people will follow. “It’s much harder to say no when a project has already been kick-started,” says Bhavanasi.

Don’t Give Everyone the Same Story

No, don’t lie but don’t give everyone the same sales pitch. Unlike projects run by other departments, IT projects tend to cut across functions. And that means CIOs need to wear different hats when trying to sell their projects to different crowds. “Sometime the CIO has to act like a chameleon. You have to change your colors to suit different business needs,” says Future Group’s Dave.

That’s exactly what he did when the Future Group wanted to implement a new loyalty program across all its divisions. “To my CMO, I sold the project as a customer-centric initiative. But to my chief people’s officer, I had to highlight the process efficiency it would bring about. And to the sales department it was about how the project would improve their commissions,” says Dave.

It’s a strategy that also worked for Yatendra Kumar, CIO at Gokaldas Exports, one of India’s largest manufacturers and exporters of off-the-rack clothing. Kumar says that today he’s blessed with a tech-savvy CFO, but he wasn’t always so lucky. “My previous organization was a traditional, family-run outfit and a simple request to upgrade from a broadband to MPLS took years to clear,” he says.

When Kumar wanted to install a performance monitoring tool, he remembers his CFO being less-than-happy with the suggestion. “For him it appeared that IT was looking to make their jobs easier and making the company pay for it,” he says.

So he went with the same proposal to the sales department, only with a difference. “We told the sales department that the tool would expose where gaps, which were affecting their commissions, were coming form. You need to speak to people in the language they will respond to. The classic what’s-in-it-for-me slogan is true for anyone,” says Kumar.

Finally, it helps to earn your credibility everyday. Credibility is the single-most important factor in winning buy-in say CIOs. But that doesn’t mean that must never have made a mistake. You’re a CIO, not superman.

“Owning up is tough but it is highly-rewarding. In fact, it’s one of the first lessons we learn growing up: Admitting to your pranks always lessens the punishment that follows,” says Dave.

Hyderabad Industries’ Singh agrees. “I remember when we built a convincing proposal to implement a DR project for a client but didn’t get the necessary sanctions. It perplexed us until we found out that in the excitement of the new project, the team has neglected some of its more routine chores. It is through these seemingly-rudimentary processes that you build your credibility. When you fail, everyone notices.”

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