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Pitching Novel Ideas: A User's Guide to Success

When introducing their creative ideas to supervisors, employees use a dual approach consisting of both idea enactment and influence tactics.

Published: Dec 29, 2020 11:44:53 AM IST

Pitching Novel Ideas: A User's Guide to SuccessImage: Shutterstock

Innovation is widely accepted as the driving force for organizational growth and competitiveness. Yet academics and practitioners alike continue to lament the slow pace of innovation and seek remedies to accelerate it. One reason for the disappointing pace may be the fact that employees’ creative ideas often fail to receive a positive assessment from managers.

For example, although Kodak’s research lab invented the world’s first digital camera, its managers failed to appreciate this new product idea, enabling Sony to eventually overtake Kodak as the market leader in the digital photography space. Similarly, while Xerox developed a blueprint for the first personal computer, insufficient investment by its managers allowed Steve Jobs and Apple to snatch the opportunity away and exploit it.

Research suggests that, despite espousing creativity as a desired goal, individuals in decision-making roles often fail to recognize—and even reject—creative ideas, in part due to their intolerance for uncertainty, which is an inherent aspect of novel ideas. Other research has pointed to a variety of conditions that may bias individuals in managerial positions toward judging creative ideas negatively.

To help organizations overcome these barriers, there has been a call for research that helps to diminish bias against and aid recognition and acceptance of creativity. In this article we summarize our recent co-authored paper, in which we provide a model for successfully pitching ideas in organizations.

The Art of Issue Selling
Given the importance of creative ideas to organizational prosperity, considerable research and effort in organizations have focused on ways to encourage employees’ development of creative ideas. Yet, despite the profusion of ideas and knowledge about how to generate them, there is increasing recognition that the introduction of creative ideas does not necessarily mean they will be subsequently implemented. 

In seeking answers to this ‘implementation conundrum’, researchers have tracked some of the difficulty in implementing creative ideas back to creativity assessments made at the level of the direct manager.

Although not focused directly on issues of creativity assessment, research on ‘employee voice’ has indicated that managers are often averse to recognizing ideas for improvement due to ego defensiveness and other biases associated with carrying out managerial functions. Their notoriously busy schedules, multiple functions, and frequent interruptions combine to diminish the time and attention available for managers to scrutinize creative ideas.

Evaluating highly creative ideas requires the allocation of considerable cognitive capacity by managers, and such ideas can be difficult to unpack, due to their relative unfamiliarity, the lack of readily available reference points for them, and the considerable ambiguity regarding their implications. Accordingly, much of the onus in ensuring that their creative ideas come to light may ultimately rest on the employees who propose those ideas.

Employees, as idea creators, are in a unique position to effectively highlight the originality or novelty and usefulness of their ideas, thereby positively impacting managers’ creativity assessments at a crucial early stage in the innovation cycle.

In our research, we define creativity as ‘the generation of novel yet useful ideas related to new organizational products and services’.

We define a ‘creativity assessment’ as the extent to which a manager identifies and appreciates the value of creative ideas (i.e., the novelty and usefulness of the ideas) that have been generated by employees. Creativity assessments arise from communication between idea creators and gatekeepers, raising the possibility that employee idea creators may be able to take actions that help their managers more adequately assess the merits and implications of creative idea offerings.

We recently set out to address this possibility and provide guidance on what employees can do to foster more positive supervisory assessments of their creative ideas. In considering their options, we adopted and extended University of Michigan Professors Jane Dutton and Susan Ashford’s Dual-Process Issue-Selling Model as a framework to depict how employees’ proactive actions with supervisors can help them gain recognition for their novel ideas.

This framework, which has been mainly used in the change literature rather than in the creativity literature, highlights two mechanisms underlying successful issue selling: ‘issue packaging’ and ‘the selling process’.

Issue packaging.  This concerns how an issue is framed and presented. In considering issue packaging, Dutton and Ashford offer several options for advancing ideas, including issue framing (which aspects to highlight, the onus of responsibility); how the issue is presented (using exemplars or vivid stories); the nature of the issue appeal (one sided or two sided); and issue bundling (linking to other relevant issues).

The selling process. Dutton and Ashford’s model maintains that issue-selling success is also dependent on a selling process. Over 40 years ago, researchers began to identify employees as proactive participants engaged in active efforts to alter their work environments. Subsequent research has focused on identifying behaviours used by employees in affecting their environments and targeting individuals within those contexts. A particular set of behaviors that employees use to impact their work environments is Upward Influence, which refers to the influence tactics used by employees in persuading highers-up to adopt their point of view. Across multiple managerial studies, Gary Yukl and colleagues identified four core types of influence tactics that tend to be consistently effective:

  1. Rational persuasion—using rational arguments and relevant facts to demonstrate that a request or proposal is feasible and germane to key objectives;
  2. Consultation—asking the target person to offer suggestions or aid plans for the proposed endeavor or change for which support is sought;
  3. Inspirational appeals—implicitly or explicitly referencing the target’s values and ideals or striving to stir the person’s emotions to gain concurrence for a request or proposal; and
  4. Collaboration—offering to furnish assistance or required resources if the target will comply with a request or sanction a proposed change.

The Role of Idea Enactment
In building on and extending the concept of idea packaging to the creativity domain, we explored the concept of ‘idea enactment’—the illustration of abstract ideas in more tangible forms using demos, PowerPoint presentations, or other physical objects such as prototypes, animating boards, drawings, mock-ups, and simulations.

Based on University College London Professor Sarah Harvey’s theoretical notion of ‘enacting ideas’, we define idea enactment as the illustration or demonstration of abstract ideas in more tangible forms using animated, visual (e.g., demos, PowerPoint presentations), or physical objects(e.g., prototypes, posters, animating boards, sketches, drawings, mock-ups, or simulations).

Within the Dual-Process Framework, idea enactment can facilitate supervisors’ creativity assessments in several ways.

It conveys new thinking in a relatively concrete way. For instance, Harvey has noted that using animating storyboards or “producing a few minutes of film illustrates how members of a Pixar team visualize the story and illuminate aspects of the story that the team has not yet brought to life.” Similarly, Spencer Harrison and Elizabeth Rouse’s inductive qualitative study revealed that the prototypes presented by creative workers provide rich information about the idea for feedback providers. Other work on prototyping, demos, rapid prototyping, and drawings also suggests that using physical objects is an efficient and effective way to highlight information about products or ideas vis-à-vis other familiar notions, reduce uncertainty about the nature of these ideas, and achieve greater mutual understanding and recognition.

It can readily incorporate salient and vivid cues. According to Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor, salience refers to the extent to which a stimulus stands out relative to other stimuli in the same context. “Vividness” refers to the extent to which the stimulus is “emotionally interesting, concrete, and imagery-provoking, and proximate in a sensory, temporal, or spatial way”. Enacting ideas (e.g., through exemplars and prototypes) can make them more salient because they can be made more prominent and notable than is possible with traditional verbal communication of abstract ideas. Idea enactment can also make new ideas vivid in the sense of being concrete, proximate, and lucid, thereby highlighting characteristics and features that are unique and different from familiar ideas, as well as indicating how the new ideas might be useful.

It facilitates knowledge transfer. Finally, research on knowledge transfer and organizational learning suggests that the visual and physical object support provided by idea enactment can depict the idea’s current or possible ‘form, fit, and function’, thereby facilitating knowledge transfer regarding the nature of the idea. Thus, by providing concrete forms and vivid representations of a novel, yet abstract idea, employees’ idea enactment may provide supervisors with more easily accessible information about the idea’s usefulness and the extent to which it differs from more mundane, familiar notions.

A Model Emerges

We proposed that employees’ proactive use of idea enactment would interact with issue packaging and the selling process to significantly enhance managerial assessments of those employees’ creative contributions.

According to Dutton and Ashford, “Issue-selling success is dependent not only on issue packaging, but also on the choices that sellers implicitly or explicitly make regarding how to sell an issue”—namely, the selling process.

We theorized, for instance, that employees’ verbal arguments in conjunction with enactment would work interdependently to help supervisors more readily understand the rationale behind, and merits of, the new idea. For example, we expected that both attracting attention through the use of creative idea enactment and offering a compelling rationale may attract greater recognition. We also anticipated that using inspirational appeals synergistically with the visual enactment of ideas could also engage supervisors’ values or in other ways stir emotions that engender appreciation of the uniqueness and value of the new idea.

Moreover, when ideas are enacted, influence tactics such as consultation and collaboration (i.e., soliciting the target’s views, inviting input, and negotiating changes to the enacted idea) can also facilitate greater engagement from supervisors. Such requests for feedback have been associated with higher ratings of creative performance from supervisors. In contrast, when creative idea enactment is accompanied by only minor use of influence tactics, the enactment’s impact will be lower.

We first conducted a field study in a video game and animation company. Study 1’s goal was to establish the external validity of the phenomena of interest. Due to the company’s concerns about the confidentiality of its intellectual property, we were not able to collect data on the content of employees’ specific ideas (i.e., novelty and usefulness). Subsequently, we conducted a lab experiment (Study 2) in which we manipulated idea novelty (assuming comparable usefulness) to directly test our full model and facilitate causal inferences.

In both the field study and a laboratory experiment, we found that when employees actively enacted their creative ideas and used upward influence tactics, these actions interacted to positively affect supervisors’ assessment of the ideas.

Results from our lab experiment further showed that the benefits of using this dual approach were more likely to accrue when selling an idea that, while useful, was more novel (i.e., creative) rather than less novel. Our findings also demonstrated that supervisors’ assessments of employees’ creativity play an important role in translating employees’ idea enactment and influence efforts into implementation, thereby helping to bring employees’ creative ideas to fruition.

Our research makes several important contributions to the literature on creativity and innovation. First, it helps to shift the dominant focus in the creativity literature from understanding factors that facilitate creative idea generation to examining creativity assessment. In doing so, it acknowledges recent research documenting various forces that tend to bias decision-makers against novel ideas. Moreover, it addresses what idea creators–employees might do to gain more appropriate assessments of their ideas by supervisors–decision-makers.

Second, guided by the dual issue-selling approach, we demonstrate the importance of the interactive combination of creative idea enactment as a ‘packaging’ approach and influence tactics as a ‘selling’ approach in identifying employees’ options for proactively influencing supervisors’ assessment of their creative offerings. Although use of various forms of enactment (e.g., prototypes, demos, sketches, presentations) is frequently mentioned in the literature in the context of other issues, scant research has assessed the utility of this approach in general or for creativity assessment in particular. Toward that end, we have assessed the role of idea enactment and validated its utility in the creativity assessment process. Importantly, our results suggest that the use of creative idea enactment is effective only when paired with upward influence tactics.

Third, we were able to demonstrate directly that, assuming the new idea has usefulness, the dual-selling approach benefits high novelty ideas more so than low novelty ideas. In fact, applying the dual approach to the less novel product or idea appeared to work to its detriment. The combination of enactment and influence tactics likely made a novel idea more concrete and salient, thereby demonstrating its uniqueness and potential viability and reducing the uncertainty associated with it. In contrast, in the case of a low novelty idea, this approach seemed to highlight the idea’s relatively familiar or mundane nature, adversely affecting the ensuing creativity assessment.

Thus, our results suggest that enactment and influence are not generic tactics that can guarantee the positive creativity assessment of any or all ideas, but, rather, specific tactics that uniquely advantage more novel ideas by helping managers more readily perceive the unique aspects of ideas (i.e., novelty), better appreciate their usefulness, and more adeptly evaluate their feasibility for implementation.

In closing

When introducing their creative ideas to supervisors, employees are well advised to use both idea enactment and influence tactics. However, this practical advice comes with a caveat: those ideas must actually be both novel and useful. Otherwise, the use of the strategy described herein may backfire and expose the pedestrian nature of ideas that are low in creativity.

Supervisors can apply these findings by both encouraging the use of idea enactment and asking questions that align with the focal employee’s influence tactics. For instance, they might inquire about the rationale behind an idea, ask the employee if he or she is open to suggestions, query linkages to organizational values, or inquire about collaboration possibilities. In this way, supervisors may be able to manage their own attention, be more open to employee ideas, and make better judgments regarding creative ideas. This strategy also may quickly expose less creative ideas, so that more time can be given to more promising, more novel options.

Our model also has organization-wide implications. Namely, leaders should strive to provide idea-enactment-friendly work environments and engage in practices that encourage employee idea enactment and upward influence.


About the Author
Shuye Lu is a PhD Candidate in Organizational Behaviour at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland. This article summarizes his paper, “Pitching Novel Ideas to the Boss: The Interactive Effects of Employees’ Idea Enactment and Influence Tactics on Creativity Assessment and Implementation”, co-authored with Kathryn M. Bartol (University of Maryland), Vijaya Venkataramani (University of Maryland), Xiaoming Zheng (Tsinghua University) and Xin Liu (Renmin University of China). This paper was recently published in the Academy of Management Journal and is available online.

[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]

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