Cartoon: Psst, you wanna buy an idea?

Seven Ways to Sell Ideas to Decision Makers

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

In over a dozen years of helping companies realise more innovative ideas, one of the questions I am often asked, by the middle managers put in charge of innovation, is "Do you have any suggestions on how we can sell ideas up to decision makers?" At first, I was surprised by this question. Surely, I thought, if you have been made an innovation manager by your CEO and have been given the mandate to promote innovation, you have also been given some authority to approve the implementation of ideas. However, this is often not the case.

So, for the poor souls who have not hired me, here are seven suggestions on how to sell ideas up to decision makers. The first suggestion is for people at the top. The remaining suggestions are for everyone else.

By the way, you can watch a short video, of me presenting three of suggestions, at the end of this article.

1. Design your innovation process backwards

If you happen to be at the top of the corporate ladder, I recommend you design your innovation process backwards. Start with your company's strategic vision. All innovation should be aligned with that strategic vision. Determine what kind of ideas you want and how you want those ideas developed and implemented. Once this is clear, decide on how you want to evaluate ideasfor approval. Now, work out a process for proposing ideas that will fit with your evaluation model and implementation process. Decide how you want ideas presented, what level of detail you expect with ideas. See that these mechanisms are put into place and have your communications people communicate the process not only to the people who may propose ideas, but the people who must approve, evaluate and implement ideas.

With such a process, you can be sure your middle managers will never be asking me for suggestions on selling ideas to you; they will be too busy innovating!

2. Prototype

The best conventional approach to selling an ideas is to build a prototype of the idea and present it to the relevant decision maker. A prototype makes an idea far more real than a Powerpoint presentation or a business case. The decision maker can see the idea, she can feel it. She can play with it. She can even pick it up if it is not too big.

A prototype makes the idea more real in the senior manager's head. She can start to visualise its applications and consider the steps necessary to developing it. She can share the prototype with other managers and get relevant feedback. Incidentally, do not be disheartened if the manager returns the prototype to you with a number of criticisms and suggestions for improvement. This indicates that she is taking your idea very seriously. If she did not like the idea, she would simply reject it. So, rejoice if your prototype comes under criticism.

3. Just do it

This is my favourite approach and I used it a number of times when I was an employee. It is surprisingly effective, but can have consequences if it does not work. Simply start implementing the idea without getting approval or authorisation. This is much easier than you probably think. If you start on a project in a large organisation, people will assume you have been given the go-ahead and typically leave you to it.

If the project begins to show success, people will love it, the will champion it and they will not worry that you never got approval.

Of course, if the project fails or you get caught out doing things you are not authorised to do, you can get in trouble. Be aware.

4. Convince decision maker it was her idea

Here is another surprisingly effective approach that applies a little psychology. Have an informal meeting with a decision maker about something not related to your idea. During the conversation, mention your idea in passing. Do not seek approval. Just mention the idea and play with it a little.

A few days later, when you see the decision maker again, say something like, "I've been thinking about that idea we had last week. It is really growing on me." Do you see what you've done? You've turned your idea idea into a shared idea. The decision maker is now a stakeholder in the idea and so is more likely to approve it.

The next time you see the decision maker, say something like, "I am really excited about your idea. What are you doing with it?" Now you have handed complete ownership and responsibility of the idea to the decision maker. She is invested in the idea and is likely to feel compelled to take it further.

I have used this method and it is amazing how well it works. The downside is that if the idea succeeds, the decision maker will get credit for it, not you. As a result, this method is best suited for occasions when the implementation of the idea is more important than your recognition as the originator of the idea. 

5. Social media

Write a couple of blog posts about your idea being a new trend in your sector, use a pseudonym and submit the posts for publication in industry blogs. If you can write well, this is not usually difficult. Big blogs are always looking for quality, relevant content.

Show the posts to the decision maker and convince her that the idea is the new trend in your sector and any company not following the trend is doomed. Very likely she will feel compelled to act in order not to fall behind the competition.

6. Scare tactics

Rather than convince a decision maker that your idea will bring lots of benefits, frighten her into believing that not implementing your idea will have dire consequences. In behavioural economics, there is a name for this: prospect theory, which states that people feel an economic loss as being more valuable than a similar economic gain. In other words, losing €50 hurts more than winning €50 feels good.

Most people tend to sell their innovative ideas as potential gains to the company: "my idea could earn the company in €5 million in additional revenues next year!"

However, the senior manager thinks about the cost of implementing the idea and potential risks if the idea fails. She probably also knows from experience that enthusiastic innovators are often overly optimistic about the potential gains of an ides. So, she rejects it.

According to prospect theory, a better approach would be, "in view of current trends in our sector, not implementing my idea could cost the company as much as €5 million in lost sales next year."

And, indeed, that is a frightening prospect, isn't it?

7. Start your own company

If you try the above techniques and they do not work for you, the best alternative is to use the idea as the basis of your own company. It won't do your present employer any good, but it could a goldmine for you. It is also the ultimate way to prove your belief in your innovative idea.


Avoid this Problem - Hire Me

Of course the best way to ensure your middle managers need not ask people like me how to sell ideas is to design an innovation process from idea to implementation; a process that is in line with your strategic vision and keeps you at the forefront of your sector. I can help you with that. Get in touch and let's discuss how we can do it.

Alternatively, "How to sell ideas" makes for an entertaining and inspirational keynote speech. Contact me if it would be suitable for one of your upcoming events.


Video of me talking about three methods of selling ideas to decision makers.



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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium




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