Selling Your Ideas to Management

by Steven M. Smith · 3 comments

DAVID: Ruth, I think we should buy the ABC software to track trouble tickets and issues.

RUTH: There is no budget for that.

DAVID: But it takes me days to put together the information you want about the state of the product. And without an automated collection mechanism, I think many problems aren’t being reported.

RUTH: Provide the best information available.

DAVID: @#!~

Like many technical people who don’t know the basic ingredients and recipe for selling their ideas to management, David leaves this interaction feeling frustrated.

I’ve felt the hurt of management rejecting my ideas. When I look back on those experiences, I see a clear pattern — rejection was an understandable response to my failure to connect an idea to something that management considered significant.

Think back to a personal experience when someone was trying to persuade you to do something. If whatever they wanted you to do — such as buying insurance, volunteering your time, or making an investment — didn’t offer you significant value, didn’t you reject or ignore it?

Upper managers’ thought process isn’t different than yours. They need to know how an idea connects to something that is significant to them. If you want a thousand times better chance to sell an idea to management at any level, connect it to something that has significant value to that person.

Change the Perspective

Did David put Ruth’s desires first during his dialog with her? No. His desires dominate the interaction. That’s a huge mistake.

Effective selling focuses on the buyer, not the seller.

But David can change the perspective. It starts by doing research about Ruth. By recalling past interactions with Ruth, reviewing emails from her, and querying his network about her goals, David quickly finds many things that Ruth value. It surprises him that he never took the time to notice them before. Three things seem significant: 1) Ruth wants to hire additional testers; 2) her management has rejected her proposal to hire more testers; and 3) she wants her management to see that her organization is delivering more quality at a lower cost.

Change the Recipe

Learning about what matters the buyer is the vital ingredient for successful selling. But the flavor of that ingredient is enhanced when combined with other ingredients using a simple recipe.

The following recipe has served me well over the years when preparing for a selling interaction:

If you do X (the idea), you will get Y (the benefits).

Otherwise (if you do nothing) it will cost you Z (the cost of doing nothing).

Do I have your approval to do X?

In his first interaction with Ruth, David articulated X (the idea) but he didn’t articulate Y (the benefits) and Z (the cost of doing nothing). And he didn’t ask for approval to take action so Ruth didn’t have to explicitly reject his idea. She was free to ignore it, which is what she did.

Using the recipe, David can put the ingredients of the interaction with Ruth in context. He sees that the idea (X) is for the company to buy the ABC software package to track trouble reports. The benefits (Y) to Ruth are related to the three thinks he discovered that are significant to her. The cost of doing nothing (Z) is unknown, which tells him to estimate that cost before the interaction. And finally the recipe reminds him to explicitly ask Ruth for permission to proceed with the purchase.

Change the Interaction

Let’s look how David’s interaction with Ruth might change after using the recipe and updating the interaction with what he has discovered:

DAVID: Ruth, if you approve the purchase of the ABC software to collect and analyze trouble ticket data, you could justify to your management the additional testers you’ve talked about hiring. The software will enable us to provide management with timely summaries of the troubles encountered by both the testers and beta clients. If we continue to be unable to articulate the quality of the product, we will continue to ineffectively prioritize the use of our developers. I estimate that poor prioritization is wasting 30% of the development’s time, which works out to about $150K per month.

RUTH: I don’t have the budget to buy the product.

DAVID: Are you willing not hire the additional testers you want and for the development organization to continue to waste $150K per month?

RUTH: @#!~

DAVID: Do I have your approval to buy the ABC software?

RUTH: Let me think about it.

DAVID: When should I check back with you?

RUTH: Friday.

Did David make an immediate sale? No. But Ruth did hear him and he is a thousand times better chance of action being taken on his idea.

Notice that David’s interaction with Ruth also provided information to justify the idea to her manager, Stan. Selling to upper management starts by selling your manager and providing information that helps them sell their manager.

If Ruth rejects the ideas, David may want to appeal to Stan. He will want to change Y (the benefits) so they resonate with Stan. As you sell higher up the management chain, the benefits that matter come from the idea’s impact on increasing revenue and reducing cost.

The same ingredients and recipe apply whenever you sell ideas to anyone, such as a teammate or client.


Many people with technical backgrounds consider “selling” to be a dirty word. That’s a curious notion. I believe selling ideas is part of every aspect of life. Many organizations fail because they buy inferior ideas from people who know how sell. If you have superior ideas, I believe you owe it to your organization and yourself to learn how to sell them effectively. Start with the lesson of putting the desires of the buyer first and your own a distant second. And use the X, Y, Z ingredients and the recipe for combining them to sell your ideas to management. You will have a thousand times better chance of selling the idea.

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