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I have so many ideas! How come I can’t get buy-in, ever?

Want to advocate for a new user-facing feature? Maybe you've identified ways to reduce major pain points of a project? In the latest edition of advice column The Lossless Leader, find engineering manager Leemay Nassery's advice on getting your proposals heard by leadership.

This is your brain thinking about tech. (Gif source unknown)

This is The Lossless Leader, an advice column written by engineering manager Leemay Nassery.

Why call it The Lossless Leader? An engineering leader is someone who inspires their team, communicates well, grows their people to become leaders themselves, removes blockers or painful aspects of their team’s day-to-day, delivers on product requests and so much more. In tech, lossless compression is a technique that does not lose any data in the compression process; it reduces the size of files without losing any information in the file so quality is maintained.

Combining the two: Leaders aren’t perfect. Sometimes they manage to not lose any data while leading their org, and other times it may seem like they’re losing it altogether. This column is called The Lossless Leader because we all admire those leaders who strive to stay true to who they are and the people they serve (their team). They admit fault when necessary, learn from their mistakes, sometimes flourish in difficult situations — all while not losing themself along the way.

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The question:

“How do I get buy-in from my leadership team and peers? For over a year, I’ve had many, many ideas. With each idea, I pitch it to the team and I find that I’m instantly met with some form of no. What can I do so my ideas are at least met with an ‘all right, let’s hear it’? Is it me or is it them?”

The answer:

What I like about this question is that it’s relevant for everyone. Regardless of your title or status in an organization, we’re constantly persuading someone with an idea we may have. Ideas can be small or big. It could be as simple as convincing your team that we should cancel a meeting in favor of asynchronous communication. Or it could be more complex, such as proposing a new project that requires a bigger architecture change to your entire engineering organization.

OK, so, to answer this question, we’ll assume you’re pitching project ideas or changes with a scope that goes beyond your typical circle of influence. Maybe you’re on a product engineering team and you’d like to advocate for a new user-facing feature. Or maybe you’re on a platform engineering team and have identified ways to reduce major pain points when experimenting with machine learning models.

Regardless of what the idea is, you are clearly itching to pitch it. How should you go about it? Let’s take a short lesson from the unofficial School of Influencing and Pitching Ideas Without Losing Your Soul. Try out these four steps — they’ve surely worked for me, and so I hope they work for you as well!

Step 1: Get alignment.

You need to be aligned with your peers and management chain. There could be 10 problems. Which problem is the most severe from their perspective, and not just yours? If you feel like you’re not aligned with key partners and stakeholders, then ask them questions, such as:

  • What are the things we can’t do today that building a solution will allow us to do?
  • What is important to you?
  • What do you think we should focus on?
  • You know those organizational OKRs? Was there anything you wish we did that just didn’t get prioritized?

When gaining alignment, listen to understand, don’t listen to respond. Really listen to what they’re saying. There may be blindspots you’re overlooking if you react to something too quick.

Step 2: Create a not-so-verbose proposal.

Once you feel like you understand what is important, and your new idea seems to align with the problems that others think need more focus, then it’s time to craft your pitch deck or document. When creating this, consider the following:

  • Don’t make people think too hard.
  • Clarify some things, but not everything.
  • Clearly state what success looks like. What outcomes are you hoping for?
  • Visualize the end state. Include a high-level diagram or imagery.
  • Whether it’s a document or slide deck, be clear. If you can’t be clear with words, then maybe your thoughts are a bit sloppy and therefore spending time articulating your idea in a succinct fashion would be time well spent before you pitch your idea.

A format I follow when proposing a new idea is to create a one-page document with the following headlines:

  • What is this?
  • Why does this matter?
  • A very high-level timeline with a small visualization, if necessary
  • I haven’t convinced you yet. Why does this matter now?

If you find that your one-pager is actually five pages then maybe your idea or thoughts aren’t as clear as they should be.  Refine this document so that it can be read by those leads that are wickedly busy and only have 20 minutes to lend to your idea.

Step 3: Seek out early feedback.

Share your succinct and clear pitch deck or document with a select few individuals first — not everyone, just a few folks. If the one-pager is met with a ton of resistance, then either you need to reframe the problem statement and solution or the idea may not be worth pursuing.

A notion that is commonly associated with Netflix’s culture and also mentioned in Reed Hasting’s “No Rules Rules” book is “farming for dissent.” While socializing an idea, seek out those that will tell you what is wrong with your idea. This, of course, requires trust as folks need to feel like they can be candid and not just say “niiiice, this sounds legit” (when really it’s not legit). You have to seek out colleagues who will be totally open with you, who are comfortable with expressing that your idea has various flaws or drawbacks. Doing this will only make your pitch stronger.

Step 4: Share with the larger audience.

You’ve done the work to set a foundation by gaining early feedback first and crafting a concise proposal so now it’s time to shoot your shot. If you’re content with the feedback from the smaller sample of stakeholders and peers, address their comments and suggestions, then share the document with the larger audience.

Leemay Nassery. (Courtesy photo)

At this stage, keep in mind, a lot of leaders think about the impact of change. Some leaders are very risk averse. They may be impartial to introducing new ideas or big changes as we often (initially) lose momentum when we make changes. If you find that your peers or leaders fall into this category,  be mindful of how often change happens. There are lots of problems we can solve. Which problems are most important to solve is key to ensure you’re focusing and working on the right things, which circles back to Step 1. Alignment is gold.

Regardless of what happens, don’t take it personally. Even if it could potentially be personal, don’t get too attached to a particular idea. You’ll have more ideas. And if that’s not possible and you find this idea to be worth it yet met with substantial resistance, then consider reframing it. From my experience, some ideas are introduced too early given the state of the organization or product. When this happens, take the time to reframe or rebrand. Then you can resurface it a few months later.

We’ve surpassed the advice aspect of this column, so naturally it’s time for the song recommendation! Unfortunately (or fortunately?!) it’s another ’80s throwback. Since this post is about pitching ideas and seeking out opportunities, please check out Pet Shop Boys’ “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money).” See if you can’t shimmy those shoulders when listening to this song. I know it’s hard to resist.


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Series: The Lossless Leader

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