It was a dark and stormy day. The weather between the buildings reminded me of a Batman movie, but I braved the walk to ensure that I would make it on time for a meeting with our biggest customer. I was only the acting director of marketing for a maker of computer workstations in the Pacific Northwest, but I was accountable for over $300 million in revenue. I had a job cut out for me: prove myself.
I was somewhat dissatisfied with my role being labeled “acting.” I wrote a message on the back of my business card: “Coming to a theater near you.”
Leadership had thrown me into the lion’s den to see how I would come out, which made me nervous. I entered the meeting room, which looked like it had been set up for a session with Congress. A long table with our customer’s top engineering leadership stared back at me. They seemed agitated to see a new face entering.
During introductions, the head of the delegation said, “You’re the third person who has held this title; what suggests that you will be sticking around?” I asked him to turn my card over. He laughed at the declaration he found there.
As the meeting progressed, I listened to his demands, which he laid out while pounding his fist on the table.
“Mohan, I have been asking for a calculator function in your workstations for over a year with no response. We pay you a lot of money, and this is a simple request. How has it not been taken care of by now?”
I tried to interrupt — to no avail.
“You get out of this room and solve this problem. Then, I’ll decide whether you get to continue,” he said.
I left. The president and CEO sat at the corner of my sightline, watching me compassionately, realizing it was over. I stood tall and told him I would return after speaking with the engineering department.
As I walked toward the engineering building — still in Batman weather — I paused before entering, turned around and returned to the meeting. Engineering would give me rejections. It was time for a new idea. A risky idea.
Upon my re-entry, the customer lead declared, “You’re back so soon.”
I swallowed and said, “I’ve decided that whenever we ship you a workstation, we will Velcro a Texas Instruments calculator to it. That way, your engineers can do their work without problems.”
He watched me in shock, turned to his sidekick and said, “That will work! Let’s move on.”
From that day forward, he always asked to include me in meetings.
Whenever it’s time to do what I did then — introduce new ideas to leadership — here are my tips:
1. New ideas are useless unless placed in the context of the problem to solve. Find a problem or pain point that customers suffer from, and demand solutions. Tracking those pain points will be vital to success. I collect customer pain points continually, and use them to create solutions.
2. Remember that one person’s idea is another’s cost. Always work on the idea with those who see it as a cost. Find ways to present the truth, but through their lens. Never walk into a meeting without support from those who will say no.
3. Ideas without clear costs, dedicated resources, and expected outcomes are just dreams. Make sure your ideas have been substantiated, and be one step ahead of everyone. Get a customer story; create a prototype that shows what it does to remove pain points; forge a business model that proves it makes money.
4. Leadership likes to discover an idea or opportunity, rather than be presented with one. Show them the problem or have someone inside the organization explain it to them, then let them become the advocate for change in the organization. If leadership champions a cause, it’s likely it will become a priority, and create an opening for you to address it.
Start with the story, not the technology.
5. New concepts sometimes require learning. Blockchain, machine learning, and other complicated concepts require going beyond the buzzwords to show how ideas can help a company move forward. If this is the case, make sure to have a demo, story, or presentation that speaks to what customers do now and how that will change with the new concepts. Start with the story, not the technology. Invest in getting them comfortable with the underlying concepts over time.
6. Be a keen student of how decisions are made, and how you can infiltrate that process. If a concept does not obviously fit today’s set of priorities and strategies, understanding processes will be important to influencing change in an organization. Introducing an idea that is not aligned with budget cycles can be dangerous. However, if it solves a pain point, that can give you an advantage.
7. There is no replacement for taking the risk of rejection. If you have transformative concepts or solutions, it is your obligation to introduce them to your colleagues and leadership. You will always run the risk of rejection. Get used to it. I always tried again unless leadership told me never to bring an idea back up. This approach helped launch many companies and attract millions of dollars in funding.
Much of what I have outlined may seem like it is solely directed toward a presentation or demonstration event, but that is not the only way to introduce a concept to leadership. The story I told earlier speaks to another way: direct customer engagement.
If I had asked leadership in my company to attach a calculator on our workstations, instead of building in a software calculator, they would have rejected it, assuming the customer would hate the idea.
Sometimes, though, laying out a simple solution that immediately solves a problem can be better than guessing what the customer needs. Solving a problem in collaboration with a customer can be the most effective way to introduce new ideas.
Solve something! There’s nothing better for accelerating your career as an innovator.
Mohan Nair, CEO of Emerge Inc., is regular guest columnist at IL. He is a three-time corporate executive, three-time startup CXO, seven-time corporate startup founder, and three-time author who has led innovation teams for over 10 years. Most recently, he was Chief Innovation Officer at Cambia Health Solutions