Innovation Organizations Feb 3, 2017

Four Tips to Per­suade Oth­ers Your Idea Is a Winner

Want to shake up the sta­tus quo? Use psy­chol­o­gy to your advantage.

Lisa Röper

Based on insights from

Loran Nordgren

Some­times the biggest and best ideas are the tough­est to sell.

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Human beings are hard­wired to pro­tect what is famil­iar, a con­cept psy­chol­o­gists often refer to as sta­tus quo bias.” 

Peo­ple just aren’t nat­u­ral­ly ori­ent­ed towards inno­va­tion or change,” says Loran Nord­gren, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions at the Kel­logg School. If you were deal­ing with total­ly ratio­nal agents, you could sell your inno­va­tion on the grounds of its func­tion­al­i­ty — in oth­er words, why it’s a good idea. But you are almost nev­er deal­ing with total­ly ratio­nal agents.”

Thank­ful­ly, if you are con­vinced that a cer­tain new prod­uct, fresh strat­e­gy, or over­seas expan­sion is exact­ly what your orga­ni­za­tion needs, there are things you can do to improve your chances of per­suad­ing key deci­sion mak­ers to go along with it.

Nord­gren, who stud­ies influ­ence and deci­sion-mak­ing, offers four guide­lines for how to make your case more persuasively. 

Let audi­ences know what they are miss­ing. Peo­ple instinc­tive­ly want to sell their idea based on the ben­e­fits,” Nord­gren says. They’ll empha­size all of the pos­i­tives. They’ll list what the orga­ni­za­tion stands to gain.” But this is not always the best approach. 

It is more effec­tive, Nord­gren says, to pitch the inno­va­tion instead as a poten­tial oppor­tu­ni­ty lost. That’s because we feel the pain of loss more acute­ly than the plea­sure of gain — a con­cept known as loss aver­sion.” In fact, a num­ber of stud­ies indi­cate that, from invest­ment deci­sions to coin toss­es, we feel a loss twice as acute­ly as we feel a cor­re­spond­ing gain. 

Nord­gren says this con­cept applies to every kind of deci­sion we make. For exam­ple, peo­ple are more like­ly to take a job oppor­tu­ni­ty abroad when they think about it not in terms of what they stand to gain — self-growth, expo­sure to new cul­tures and mar­kets, trav­el expe­ri­ence — but in terms of what they stand to miss.

The same holds true for cor­po­rate strategy. 

When you’re try­ing to con­vince some­one to expand into a new area or devel­op a new prod­uct, you want to use the same idea but present it dif­fer­ent­ly,” Nord­gren says. “‘Rep­u­ta­tion­al enhance­ment’ doesn’t sound very inter­est­ing, but if you tell peo­ple that by not doing this, we miss out on an oppor­tu­ni­ty to appear real­ly for­ward-look­ing, that is more like­ly to succeed.” 

Give points of com­par­i­son. We under­stand the world in rel­a­tive terms,” Nord­gren says. If pre­sent­ed with a chance to save $50 on a $300 pur­chase, we might seri­ous­ly con­sid­er the offer. Sta­tis­ti­cal­ly, though, we will find sav­ing $50 on a $30,000 pur­chase less persuasive. 

Deci­sions aren’t made in a vac­u­um,” Nord­gren says. A fun­da­men­tal mis­take peo­ple make when try­ing to sell a new idea is for­get­ting to cre­ate points of comparison.” 

Deci­sions aren’t made in a vac­u­um. A fun­da­men­tal mis­take peo­ple make when try­ing to sell a new idea is for­get­ting to cre­ate points of comparison.”

This means it can be help­ful to present your audi­ence with more than one viable option — even if most of those are real­ly just decoy” options. For exam­ple, the most expen­sive dish on a restau­rant menu is usu­al­ly designed to direct one’s atten­tion to the sec­ond-most expen­sive dish (which may just have the high­est prof­it mar­gin). Sim­i­lar­ly, when The Econ­o­mist mag­a­zine offers print, online, and online-and-print options, the print option is designed to make the online-and-print option appear more desirable. 

You want to present peo­ple with legit­i­mate alter­na­tives,” Nord­gren says. But the point, of course, is to draw most atten­tion to the idea you want to pursue.” 

Let peo­ple expe­ri­ence the ben­e­fits. Anoth­er psy­cho­log­i­cal con­cept Nord­gren cites is the endow­ment effect.” Put sim­ply, peo­ple val­ue some­thing more once it is in their pos­ses­sion. If you want to con­vince some­one of the val­ue of your inno­va­tion, you might con­sid­er let­ting peo­ple expe­ri­ence the ben­e­fits,” he says. 

One clas­sic demon­stra­tion of the endow­ment effect involves cof­fee mugs. In one sce­nario, peo­ple were pre­sent­ed with a cof­fee mug and asked how much they would be will­ing to pay for it; in anoth­er sce­nario, they were giv­en the mug and asked how much they would sell it for. On aver­age, peo­ple offered to sell the mug for much more than they were will­ing to pay for it. The sim­ple fact of the mug becom­ing theirs boost­ed its value. 

The same prin­ci­ple can be applied to any new inno­va­tion, includ­ing prod­ucts and ser­vices. Con­sid­er cable tele­vi­sion. HBO doesn’t try to sell you on the ben­e­fits of HBO,” Nord­gren says. Instead of spend­ing large sums of mon­ey try­ing to con­vince peo­ple to pay more for cer­tain movie chan­nels, they sim­ply offer the chan­nels for free for up to three months. The deci­sion to pay a cer­tain amount for movie chan­nels you are cur­rent­ly not enjoy­ing is psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly dis­tinct from the deci­sion to give up some­thing that you have already enjoyed and experienced.” 

Win over a crit­i­cal mass. Often the most per­sua­sive evi­dence for why some­one should inno­vate comes from the behav­ior of the peo­ple around him. Psy­chol­o­gists call this social proof.” 

Social proof plays an impor­tant role in most group deci­sions. When a pro­fes­sor or admin­is­tra­tor tells stu­dents that a cer­tain course is lim­it­ed due to wide­spread inter­est, those stu­dents are far more like­ly to sign up. Or con­sid­er the behav­ior of a savvy hotel piano play­er. Before sit­ting down to the keys for the evening, the piano play­er will seed her glass tip jar with five- and ten-dol­lar bills, in order to estab­lish the desired norm. 

Social proof is par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant when it comes to fig­ur­ing out how to sell change with­in an orga­ni­za­tion,” Nord­gren says. Indeed, stud­ies have shown that what tends to move resis­tors is the fear that they might be left behind. Ear­ly adopters might be keyed in to the func­tion­al­i­ty of an inno­va­tion, but if you can build crit­i­cal mass, that’s the only thing that’s going to pull more con­ser­v­a­tive folks.” 

Note that win­ning over a crit­i­cal mass may not hap­pen overnight. When sell­ing an idea, Nord­gren sug­gests patience is key. So instead of rush­ing imme­di­ate­ly to the key stake­hold­er — the per­son who could kill the idea or help it mate­ri­al­ize — Nord­gren rec­om­mends secur­ing easy wins along the way. 

First, try the idea out on peo­ple who are favor­able,” he says. You want to be able to go to the key stake­hold­er and say, four of the five direc­tors have approved this,’ or, we’ve suc­cess­ful­ly test­ed an ear­ly ver­sion.’ You don’t real­ly want to have that meet­ing until you have a clear sense of how your idea will be perceived.” 

Featured Faculty

Loran Nordgren

Associate Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer

Drew Calvert is a freelance writer based in Iowa City, Iowa.

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