Pitching Novel Ideas to the Boss

Research Suggests Three Steps To Gain Traction

Aug 14, 2018
As Featured In 
Academy of Management Journal

Have an amazing idea that could have a big impact for your organization? Now it’s up to you to really sell it to your boss.

Many organizations say they want innovation and push employees to come up with new ideas. But often those ideas aren’t being heard by managers so they’ll never be implemented, says Kathryn M. Bartol, a management professor at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

“There is a lot of evidence that people are actually reluctant to accept and recognize new ideas,” says Bartol. “There is a filter that things don’t get through. It’s a combination of managers being busy and focused on other things. And there’s the fact that there is a certain amount of risk involved in implementing new ideas and it’s not easy to recognize the value of them.”

Bartol was part of a research team that pinpoints what employees can do to get their innovative ideas through their boss’s filter. Bartol and fellow Smith management professor Vijaya Venkataramani conducted the research with Smith Ph.D. candidate Shuye Lu and two co-authors from universities in China. The findings give employees the tools to make sure their ideas are heard. 

Step one, say the researchers, is to make the creative idea more concrete. They call this “idea enactment,” and it can be accomplished by creating a demo, PowerPoint presentation, prototype, mockup or simulation. 

“You can’t be too abstract about it,” says Venkataramani. “Doing some enactment of the idea really helps because managers are busy and they can more readily visualize what is being proposed. Also it just makes it easier for people to understand something when its more concrete.”

But that’s not enough, she says. Step two is to really sell your idea to the boss using “influence tactics.” For a strong pitch, explain the rationale, connect it to things the supervisor values, ask for feedback from the supervisor, and offer to help implement the idea, say the researchers.

“It’s hard for people to accept novel ideas, so sell an idea in a way that helps your manager understand the implications of it,” says Venkataramani.

But make sure your idea is actually novel. The research also shows that trying to use enactment and influence tactics on something that’s not actually innovative will backfire. 

“Fortunately, these are not tactics you can use to pull the wool over everybody’s eyes,” says Bartol. “If you try and pitch something that’s not novel, it’s not going to work. It just makes it obvious that the idea is ordinary and uncreative when you enact it and explain the rationale, which probably isn’t very good.”

It also doesn’t help an employee’s reputation if he or she is trying to pass off a mundane idea as an innovative one, says Bartol. 

“This research makes it easier for employees. It gives them some tools to get through to their bosses to sell their creative ideas,” Venkataramani says. “They are trying to do things better and make a big impact on their organizations. This will help them feel more encouraged to be more creative.” 

“We hope our research will help to accelerate innovation in organizations,” Lu notes.

Read more: Pitching Novel Ideas to the Boss: The Interactive Effects of Employees’ Idea Enactment and Influence Tactics on Creativity Assessment and Implementation is featured in the Academy of Management Journal.

About the Author(s)

Kathryn M. Bartol

Dr. Kathryn M. Bartol is the Robert H. Smith Professor of Leadership and Innovation and Chair of the Management and Organization Department at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, College Park. She is the director of the Center for Leadership, Innovation and Change (CLIC). She holds an Executive Coach Certification from the Columbia University Coaching Certification Program.

Vijaya Venkataramani

Vijaya Venkataramani is an Associate Professor of Management & Organization at the R.H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. She currently serves as an Associate Editor for the Journal of Applied Psychology. Professor Venkataramani's research focuses on how informal social relationships and social networks at work influence leadership, creativity, and discretionary employee behaviors in organizations (behaviors that are not stipulated as part of the job, but that still are important for organizational well-being).

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