Four years ago, Craig Hatkoff, co-founder of the Tribeca Film Festival, approached me about a brainstorm: an event recognizing and celebrating breakthrough innovators. When I suggested to Clayton Christensen that we partner with Hatkoff to create the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards, Clay’s response was: I trust you Whitney. If you say we should, let’s do it. In 2010, the first year, the event was fledgling, but charming. By 2013, we had honored Jack Dorsey of Twitter, Garrett Camp of Uber, famed choreographer Twyla Tharp, and Gangnam style pop artist Psy.
How I wish that all my ideas received this kind of reception! Rarely have I had that kind of immediate trust and social currency when proposing something new. More often, I’ve experienced the opposite reaction: what I consider genius ideas have been greeted with blank faces, disapproving stares, and occasionally the outright smackdown.
New ideas tend to evoke fear and anger – we are programmed to prefer the comfort and safety of established norms. Much as I want to believe that a glaringly good idea will stand on its merits, I have come to realize that just like any product or service, ideas require good marketing if they’re going to reach their intended customers.
Potential customers for our ideas have a predilection for thinking more about what they are already thinking, of scaling the learning curve they are already on. When it comes to embracing a new idea, most will demur unless you can pack a parachute that will allow them to jump safely from their S-curve to yours. You create this parachute using convincing data, demonstrating your own competence, speaking their language, and socializing your idea to overcome the ever-present fear factor. This becomes especially important within a large organization where innovation is often perceived as a battle: the heroic disruptive David against the oafish bureaucratic Goliath, or a spy game requiring stealth.
Celine Schillinger sought to change the leadership landscape of Sanofi, a major pharmaceutical company. She loved her job, and with a background in public affairs in communications had been successful in both international business and management roles. But as she began to consider her future at the company, she realized that all of the people above her were white, male engineers or accountants. She also believed that Sanofi’s competitive edge was at risk because of this narrow approach to talent management.
So she wrote a memo to the CEO explaining why gender balance is good for business. Initially there was no buy-in. But when her e-mail unexpectedly went viral after she’d shared it with a few colleagues, Schillinger became the leader of what has come to be known as WoMen in Sanofi Pasteur (WiSP), now the largest network across Sanofi with 2,500 members in fifty countries. This might have backfired with an executive team that wasn’t as competent and as open to discussion, or if Sanofi had gone about it in a different way — in either case, they could have reacted as if she were going behind their backs. But both her tactful socialization of the idea and its contagious effect were self-validating. As the idea gained grassroots traction, the risks of buying in fell for senior management even as their respect for her expert stakeholder communication skills rose. This led to the HR VP brokering a meeting with the CEO and an invitation to make a formal presentation to the Executive Committee. By eliminating the heightened sense of risk inherent in new ideas, Schillinger offered a parachute for potential stakeholders to jump into the unknown. Today, she’s the Head of Stakeholder Engagement for their in-development Dengue Fever vaccine — one of Sanofi’s largest business initiatives.
Or consider Scott Heimendinger, who jumped from the role of program manager on the Excel team at Microsoft to the director of applied research for Modernist Cuisine, a company dedicated to advancing the state of the culinary arts through the creative application of scientific knowledge and experimental techniques. Making the leap to a new career curve is a bold idea that also needs to be sold, and the importance of mitigating risk for the key decisionmaker — the prospective employer — holds true. Because Modernist Cuisine founder Nathan Myhrvold was a former Microsoftee (their first CTO and the founder of Microsoft Research), Heimendinger immediately reduced the perceived risk of hiring him by speaking their shared Microsoft language. But what really packed the parachute was Scott’s demonstrated competence at the Seattle Food Geek blog. And like Schillinger, Scott also has the ability to socialize an idea; he’s recently wrapped a successful Kickstarter campaign for Sansaire, a startup he co-founded to produce a $199 sous vide cooker.
According to the research on successful entrepreneurs, their single most important trait is the ability to persuade. Whether you’re an entrepreneur or an intrapreneur, unless your boss is as comfortable with disruption as Clay Christensen is, your ability to persuade is tightly linked to your ability to assuage fear. To get buy-in for any new idea, whether your customer is your manager, your direct reports, your teenage son, the CEO, de-risking is essential. The ability to jump to a new vision or product or job almost always requires that those around us, our fellow stakeholders, also leap to a new curve of learning. If you’re looking for a break for your breakthrough ideas, prepare to skydive: pack a parachute for you and your colleagues