Most of us have the need to sell our ideas within our firms from time to time. Here's how to do it.

First, you have to have the right mindset:

  • Don't worry about getting credit. Your goal is to get your idea accepted, not to get a pat on the back for being smart.
  • Your idea is different from -- not better than -- others' ideas. If you voice your proposal in competitive terms, you'll get resistance.
  • Objections are not rejections but requests for more information, greater clarity or understanding, or a need for more time to get used to a truly different idea.
  • People bring their own perceptions to your proposal and might not see the benefits that you do. Try to determine your audience's perception of your idea; then align with that perception.
  • Be willing to compromise. You have to give something to get something.
  • Believe in your idea. People respond to sincerity and enthusiasm -- as long as both are tempered. Over-enthusiasm may come across as phony promotion.
  • Recognize that you're not really selling anything. You're helping a group of people who have a stake in the issue make a good decision. Because you believe that your idea is of great benefit to them, you're confident that if they examine the issue closely, with open minds, they'll recognize its benefit. However, accept that you might be wrong. The group's good decision may be to do something other than what you advocate, or do nothing at all. 

Technique: You're facilitating a group decision, which has four components:

Shared awareness of the problem. Each stakeholder views the issue through a different lens. For example, if you propose to bring in a sales trainer because lawyers don't have the skills or confidence needed to compete under today's market conditions. Marketing department stakeholders might describe the problem as lawyers not being differentiated. A practice group chair may see the problem as a lack of cross-selling. Business Development may see the problem as poor closing skills. In this case, which is common, you're trying to solve three different ones. That can't work.

Facilitate as much discussion as is necessary to get all views aired and heard. This is where you introduce all the known consequences of the problem. As each stakeholder contributes to the consequences definition, you'll feel a collective sense of urgency growing as people say, or at least think to themselves, "Wow. I didn't know that. That's not something we can continue to tolerate." Keep going until the group agrees on a single definition of the problem.

In the graph above, notice the height (resistance, energy required) and width (passage of time) of the Shared Awareness segment. Achieving shared awareness is the most difficult and time-consuming part of the group decision process. That's why it's the part that groups tend to abandon prematurely, guaranteeing failure. 

Stakeholder alignment. Once your stakeholders understand and recognize the legitimacy of each other's perspectives, they'll realize that the decision is unlikely to be 100% what they'd advocate, that others' considerations must be accounted for. This is the essence of alignment. Now, instead of me trying to get my way, I'm trying to help make a good decision for the organization.

The first decision that the group must make is, "Does this problem require that we take action because the consequences of not acting are unacceptable, or would it merely be a good idea to do something?" Now that we have the same purpose, and we've decided we must take action, we can move to evaluating potential solutions. However, if you allow the group to go there before achieving shared awareness and alignment, you'll fail.

Directional planning. This is the part that everyone likes. They get to weigh in on the relative merits of proposed solutions. To limit the number of solution options and keep the discussion on track, it's important to refer frequently to the agreed problem definition.  

Implementation. The group must think through the practical ramifications of implementation fully. It's easy to say, "We've chosen Solution Option 2. Our job is done," and walk away. However, poor implementation planning is a big cause of failure, even if you've chosen the right solution. Also, by omitting this step, or doing it haphazardly, you guarantee that the implementation will encounter obstacles from people who belatedly recognize some aspect of the implementation that runs counter to their interests. Talk about it up front, when people are focused on the consequences of the problem, and are motivated to solve it.

You're not selling. You're facilitating a well-informed, eyes-open decision that has sufficient support to get implemented successfully. Whether with internal or external buyers, that's what professional salespeople do.

Mike O'Horo

If you'd like to master the process of Stakeholder Alignment, get RainmakerVT's online simulation of that name. You'll manage a virtual you through the decision-facilitation process, deciding what to say to do next at a series of decision points. For each response you choose, a video coach will explain why that is or isn't the optimal choice. You can do all that at your convenience, from any connected device.