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How to Get a New Idea Off the Ground

Big Think Edge | November 19, 2018
A new idea is delicate. It can be killed by a sneer or a yawn; it can be stabbed to death by a quip and worried to death by a frown on the right man's brow. — Ovid

When you’ve got a new idea for your business, it’s vital to get other people onboard if you’re to have any hope of really giving it a shot. Innovation expert Jeff DeGraff knows it can be a steep climb, because — as he says in his Big Think Edge video “How Do You Gain Buy-In for an Innovation?” — a company is typically more interested in maintaining its equilibrium than deviating from the norm. It’s therefore also the case that the more original an idea is, the more likely it is to encounter organizational “antibodies” meant to ward off such things.

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This is not to say you should give up. In his video, DeGraff offers some strategies for navigating such resistance, and for ultimately getting the kind of buy-in your idea deserves.

Find a Trojan Horse

To execute an innovative idea, you need resources to pull it off, as well as political cover that will let you move ahead without setting off alarm bells. These are two things that can be hard to come by. DeGraff suggests looking around: Somebody probably has both of those things already in hand for a project everybody likes. What you need is a Trojan horse, suggests DeGraff, a way to embed your idea in this other project by finding a way to justify its belonging there.

You’ll be trading off any chance of getting primary credit for your innovation if it works. That will go to the owner of the project. Still, in exchange you’ll be getting access to resources that allow you to try out your concept and refine it, with cover, so that you can learn what works and what doesn’t. In the end, you stand to emerge with a reputation among team members for being innovative, as well as a proof of concept that can make it easier for you to openly and directly acquire the backing you’ll need for the next iteration.

Keep Camelot Under Wraps

In his video, DeGraff relates the production history of one of the most successful Broadway musicals of all time, “Camelot.” That success is how the story ended, but not the way it began, and its development serves as a warning to keep your early experimentation to yourself. Don’t let your idea be judged until it’s ready and you’re sure that the judgment will be positive. “The mistake people make,” DeGraff says, “is they try and prototype their product, their project in a very visible place. Don’t because failure’s inevitable. Find a place where people aren’t looking.” Work out the kinks off-Broadway, like the producers of “Camelot” did.

Show. Don’t Tell.

To make sure your innovation connects with the people whose support you need, remember what visual creatures we are. DeGraff says this is critical because “our brain is about creating these lovely pictures.” He explains, “it’s always a good idea to show, don’t tell. Build a prototype. Tell a story. Take a digital camera and shoot a little film, you know, a little film on your phone, right? Take a pen and pencil drawing and draw it.”

There’s another wrinkle to describing something new that may not be immediately obvious. When you’re verbally describing your innovation to someone, how are they going to picture something they’ve — by definition — never seen before? At best, it’s a heavy lift. “They don’t know it yet, so it’s hard for them to imagine and, in fact, when you really start talking about innovation they often think you’re full of baloney,” points out DeGraff. “Right? Because they haven’t seen it yet. Because you are in a sense a little bit delusional — you’re talking about things that don’t exist yet.”

Take Multiple Shots

You can’t be certain exactly who’ll be the first to support your idea, so DeGraff suggests putting together slightly different versions aimed at the specific people or groups you’ll be pitching. Bring forward features or benefits that have a good chance of resonating with that particular audience. Once you’ve picked up the support you need, you can always circle back and re-balance things to create the ideal version of your innovation.

It’s a learning adventure

That great idea you have is just the beginning of an extended learning process. You’re likely to discover things about the people you work with, about company politics, resource management, and maybe even about yourself. As you climb over obstacles, you’ll learn more about your innovation.

Remember that it’s unfair to expect yourself to have all the answers from the beginning of your upward journey. DeGraff sums it up: “With each top of the mountain you’re going to learn new things, so you have to leave room for the stuff that you don’t know now, because in innovation you’re going to be making it up as you go along.”

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