Just because you think you know a better way to do something, even if you are
right, no one is required to care.
Making great things happen at work
is about more than just being smart.
Good ideas succeed or fail depending
on your ability to communicate them
correctly to the people who have the
power to make them happen.
When you are navigating an organization, it pays to know whom to talk to
and how to reach them. Here is a simple guide to sending your ideas up the
chain and actually making them stick. It
takes three elements: the right people,
the right timing, and the right way.
1. The Right People
For most decisions, there will be a number of stakeholders who must buy in to
your idea: your manager, any other department leads who would be involved,
maybe even your executive team.
Before you do anything else, you
should identify exactly who needs to
sign off on your idea. Who are the key
stakeholders? Why do they matter?
Who is least likely to be on board? Who
is most likely?
Think about how each of these
people functions in the organization
and what your relationship to them
is. Your relationship with each of
these people matters and will influence how receptive each is to your
ideas. Do not underestimate your
power to influence anyone in your
organization—even if you are relatively low ranking in the company—
through good relationships.
To build those relationships and
influence, however, you have to start
working on them before you ever need
to pitch an idea to anyone.
If you don’t yet have relationships
with the biggest influencers and decision makers in your organization,
that should be your first order of
business. Ask people to coffee, find
ways to add value to them, and get to
Then when you are ready to pitch
your idea, move in an order that makes
sense; don’t be random or just start
where it’s easiest.
It usually makes much more sense
to approach people one on one at
first, rather than holding a big meeting and making an announcement.
This way you can get feedback on
your idea, answer specific questions,
and slowly build momentum so that
by the time everyone hears your idea,
it is a foregone conclusion that it will
2. The Right Timing
Have you ever had somebody come to
you with a minor request when you are
buried under important work with a
tight deadline? How excited were you
to jump to their assistance, when you
were already busy with something else?
Probably not very.
Now multiply that by 10, and that is
how your manager or executive team
will respond to an idea that is presented at a time that doesn’t make any
sense. A good idea presented at the
wrong time is likely to fail. Focus is one
of the keys to business success, and
people are not excited about adopting
ideas that look like distractions.
So if your team is focused on hiring,
for example, and that is your top priority this quarter, any ideas for improvement in other areas will probably be
Once you have presented an idea
and had it disregarded by your leader-
ship, it can be much more difficult to
get anyone to listen to it in the future.
They will be thinking, “Didn’t I already
say no to this? Why are we talking
about this again?”
Make sure your idea is worth the ef-
fort right now. The change must be
measurable and likely to result in a great
improvement for the organization.
And it goes without saying that
raising any new idea and investing in
its success should happen only when
all of your regular work is done, and
done well. No one will be receptive to
your ideas if you are not already shining in the areas you are expected to
3. The Right Way
At certain companies, great ideas succeed when they are presented as narratives. At other companies, slides are king.
Other leaders love data and numbers.
How you tell your story and pitch
your idea matters.
While you may think, “A good idea
is a good idea, right? Any smart person will be able to see that,” this is not
100% true. A person who relies on data
to make good decisions will not find
a hypothetical story about a customer
convincing. Someone who wants to see
slides might not connect with an idea
they just hear in a meeting.
Speak to people in their language;
that is the only way to be sure they
Try to imagine every question each
person will ask you (these will be different for every person; the finance
department cares about different issues than the software engineers), and
make sure you have an answer ready
before they ask the question.
If you are not sure what style your
leadership likes, think back to some
recent meetings you have attended.
How have the leaders expressed ideas
themselves? That will give you a good
guide to what they prefer and how
Think also about other ideas that
have been adopted recently. How did
the person who proposed the idea
convince the people in charge and the
influencers? If you don’t know what
the person did, ask. Odds are, people
who get their ideas passed are influencers, too, and it is good to have a
working relationship with them.
How do things get done where
you work? Who doesn’t listen to you
at work? Whom do they listen to?
Hopefully this article has given you
some direction on getting your ideas
out there. Now it is time to go make
The Paradox of Autonomy and Recognition
A Conversation with Tim Marsland
Culture Surprises in Remote Software
Judith S. Olson, Gary M. Olson
Kate Matsudaira ( katemats.com) is the founder of
her own company, Popforms. Previously she worked at
Microsoft and Amazon as well as startups like Decide,
Moz, and Delve Networks.
Copyright held by owner/author.
Publication rights licensed to ACM. $15.00