You have a great idea—a way to improve efficiency, create more sustainable packaging, or better manage the supply chain. You know that your idea aligns with a strategic priority, and you have data indicating that your idea will improve business results. Convinced that the idea is a winner, you share it and the supporting data with your boss—then management says, “No.”
What happened? The data is so clear. Your logic is airtight. How could management say no to precisely the type of idea they ask for? As baffling as this scenario is, it’s also all too common.
Every day, in every company, great ideas are shot down despite compelling data, logical arguments, and strategic alignment. Not surprisingly, when this happens, the innovator is left confused, frustrated, and demotivated. Yet management is often unaware of what just happened because, in their minds, they just made a logical decision.
How is it possible that a decision that seems logical to one person appears illogical to another? More importantly, what can you do to close or avoid the gap and sell your idea?
Take a Head-Heart-Guts Approach to Innovation.
We like to believe that we are logical and rational beings. That our decisions are based solely on data—But this isn’t true.
Consider the overwhelming data about the importance of regular exercise, five servings of fruit and vegetables daily, and eight hours of sleep. A rational being would follow the data, yet very few of us do, despite experiencing the physical, mental, and financial implications. Instead, we rationalize our choices by pointing to how busy we are and the cost of solutions like a gym membership, exercise equipment, and fresh produce.
We're not rational beings. We're human beings. And, as humans, we all have motivations, aspirations, beliefs, priorities, and values that do not conform to unbiased empirical evidence yet feel very logical and rational.
Consider again the importance of regular physical exercise. The CDC recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity and two days of muscle-strengthening activity1 each week. That sounds like a lot until you break it down to 30 minutes a day for five days. Yet many of us still struggle to find the time. Why? As author Laura Vanderkam explained in her 2016 TED talk2, 'I don't have time' means ‘it's not a priority.'
Speak to the Head and the Heart
It's relatively easy to identify the priorities in your manager's head if you know how your manager is measured. Identifying their key performance indicators (KPIs) and understanding what drives improvement gives you valuable insight into the data they'll want to see when considering your idea—but don’t stop there.
Remember that your manager is also human and has motivations, aspirations, and goals, too. Understanding these heart-based priorities and addressing them professionally alongside the logical and rational priorities will make your proposal more appealing.
For example, the benefits of building or refurbishing a manufacturing facility to be more sustainable often outweigh the financial costs, yet many companies are slow to do so. This resistance is even more baffling given that management teams often speak to the importance of environmental stewardship, employee welfare and retention, and relationships with the communities in which they operate – all things that benefit from an innovative and sustainable plant.
Yet some companies do act. Executives claim that it is because they have different data that makes a better, more compelling case for change. While this may be true, it's often also because the executives leading the initiative and making decisions see the investment as a way to gain professional recognition and advancement. This is why awards like FOOD ENGINEERING’s Plant of the Year and Sustainable Plant of the Year are essential drivers of change.
Appealing to the head and the heart by presenting logical and motivational information is necessary but insufficient to inspire action. To move management from head-nodding and supportive platitudes to decisions and action, you need to give them guts.
Guts are the courage to act, to take a risk without absolute certainty that it will pay off. Of course, nothing is absolutely certain, but things that are familiar, have been done before, and have worked feel certain. In contrast, things that are new or different feel risky and even reckless.
Shifting the feeling of risk requires you to change the perception of risk. The three most effective ways to do this are:
- Make small requests – Instead of asking for all the money and people you may need, ask for the resources you need to get to the next proof point. Getting $10,000 for an unproven idea is much easier than a million dollars. Even easier if your boss can sign off on the $10,000 without going to their boss.
- Point to competition – Everyone has a competitive streak, so point out a competitor, even one that isn't considered a direct threat, who is doing what you're proposing. The fear of getting left behind and the pride of possibly pulling ahead are often enough to get the needed resources.
- Bring in benchmarks – If your proposal is new to your industry, look to adjacent industries to find examples of your idea in action. Some evidence of success is always better and more reassuring than no evidence.
As businesspeople and engineers, we want our decisions and actions to be rooted in logic, reason, and data. As humans, our decisions and actions are also motivated by our beliefs and aspirations. By speaking to both head and heart, to logic and motivation, we close the gap between what we believe and what management decides. By addressing fears, we inspire the guts to make our ideas a reality.
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, June 2). How much physical activity do adults need? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved April 30, 2023, from https://tinyurl.com/mtc7arub
 Vanderkam, L. (n.d.). How to gain control of your free time. Laura Vanderkam: How to gain control of your free time | TED Talk. Retrieved April 30, 2023, from https://www.ted.com/talks/laura_vanderkam_how_to_gain_control_of_your_free_time