The Blog

How to Get Things Done

David Ogilvy, who wrote the manual on modern advertising, put it like this:

In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative original thinker unless you can also sell what you create. Management cannot be expected to recognize a good idea unless it is presented to them by a good salesman.

So there you have it, the thing that most of us confront every day: managing upward. Whatever it is we want to do, we have to be able to convince el jefein the corner office. Whether you’re proposing a change in the layout of an advertisement or the creation of a whole new line of business, nothing goes anywhere without an advocate with more juice than you have. Managing upward is challenging, in some cultures damned near impossible. But you are where you are, and even if your goal is to just get one thing of your own into production so you can leverage that accomplishment into a new job, the rules of selling your ideas go like this:

  • Keep your eyes on the prize. You’re trying to get something done. Even if your inner psychological goal is to grind the evil bastard into dust and slop your hogs in his throne room, do nothing, say nothing, think nothing that indulges your urge to schadenfreude. You’re all about the work.
  • The organization is your customer. Your brilliant idea, your desire to contribute, your incandescent vision of the future will be judged based on how well it identifies and solves a corporate problem.
  • Do your homework. Understand the scope of what you’re proposing, the costs and potential benefits. Think about how it fits into The Big Picture. Anticipate tough questions and have answers ready.
  • Position the idea as an extension of something the manager already believes. Start your pitch with the equivalent of “I’ve been thinking about what you said in last week’s meeting…”
  • Bring your idea up in private, especially if your manager is committed to his or her own primacy.
  • Take baby steps. The closer a presented idea or plan is to complete, the more the decision narrows to yes or no. (That’s why the last meeting is, inevitably, go/don’t go.) You may know every step right up to the color of the ribbon that will be cut when you open the new, Frank Gehry-designed distribution center in Nova Scotia, but don’t bring it up at the first meeting. Leave room for collaboration. The desired outcome from the pitch is: that’s interesting, I’ve got these questions, get me answers and let’s take it to the next step.

When you’re done, always always always emphasize the team. We accomplished this thing. Others played a crucial role. The boss provided the leadership. People will know whose idea it was and recognize your contribution; there’s no reason to harp on it. Beyond the project itself, one of the outcomes you want is the power to make another thing happen, with less friction and more direct control. Never forget that this time is really all about next time. Because in business there is always a next time.