Three steps to get your ideas approved (and make them stick)

As a senior executive of strategic innovation at IBM, I was expected to develop innovations which would drive enduring change and value for the company and its customers. I developed IBM’s first training reseller program, IBM’s first cloud-based embedded learning solution, the IBM Digital Credentials Program, the New Collar Certificate Program and I led the marketing for IBM’s Smarter Workforce solutions.


A senior leader said to me, “Very few people have been able to put their fingerprints on a 100-year-old company, but you have. How did you do it?”


I thought about and realized there is a repeatable formula to get innovations off the ground in an organization, and it goes beyond the good works of thought leaders like John Kotter. If you miss any of these steps, your chances of success are dramatically diminished. I watched many very smart, capable leaders try to implement change only to be stymied because they failed to understand what real change requires.

No matter what you are developing, from a new product to a new way of working, you must follow a prescribed path to ensure your success. Here is my cheat sheet on how to drive innovation and enduring change in your organization.


Step I: Buy-in


This is the phase where are you must provide a clear and concise pitch on your innovation. It must be a real solution to a problem. So many creative people try to pitch solutions in search of a problem. And it never works. People only change when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of changing. By the way, you have about eight seconds to excite your stakeholder. Literally.

1.     Identify a need and a create a sense of urgency. You must provide a compelling reason for people to abandon the status quo. Decision makers must be convinced that they are at risk if they do not make the change quickly. You must use data and social proof (“This is what is happening in the industry . . .”) to create a sense of urgency to motivate them to take action now.

2.     Clearly define the audience. Who cares about your idea and why? Will you be able to convince them this is essential? Make sure you know what keeps your decision makers up at night and what problems they have. You need to be able to “read the room” and understand what your audience is listening for. For example, a marketing leader is interested in lead generation and brand reputation. A customer service leader is interested in customer satisfaction and retention. At this stage, you may want to create some personas. Simply write down the groups of people who benefit from your solution, including names of the decision makers and what they care about. That way you will be appealing to their needs and speaking their language.

3.     Conduct thorough research and develop a solid business case. Collect data and evidence to support the innovation’s potential success. Even if you don’t have all the answers you must create a “strawman” business case for change. Consider all of the implications of your innovation and determine how to qualify and quantify the benefits, value and risks. Also, at this stage, you should determine how you will measure the success of your innovation. You have to do this homework before you even step in front of the decision maker. You should anticipate any questions you will be asked, so put yourself in their shoes and write down the questions they will ask. Then answer them.

4.     Appeal to both sides of the brain. Show the potential positive impact on everyone in the organization. How will this increase efficiency? Will it save time or increase revenue? Universally, people typically want to do three things: Make money, save money or save time. That means better and faster ways to sell, improved customer retention, better employee experience — you get the idea. Tell them (no, show them) how. And you must appeal to the rational and emotional sides of the brain: Show them it is not only good for the business, but it is good for humanity — or for them personally. In the backs of their heads, decision makers are always thinking “What’s In It For Me?” so you have to create a “WIFFM” story.

5.     Develop a clear, concise vision, concept and pitch. Create a clear vision and story that provides a roadmap for change which is easy enough for a fifth grader to understand. You must articulate a compelling future state that inspires and guides your audience. The vision should be easily understood, memorable, and inclusive, allowing everyone to see their role in achieving it. Again, it has to be simple enough for a fifth-grader to understand. You will have just a few seconds — maybe eight seconds — to get their attention. (Yes, if you cannot articulate your story in less than 10 seconds, your chances of success are diminished, so practice this. They do this in commercials, and you can to.) Write down, “Imagine if _____” on a piece of paper and fill in the blank to get started.

6.    Incorporate social proof. Testimonials and statistics work. Make sure you weave them into your communications. If you have stats that show you are falling behind or that your solution will achieve success, show them. If you have testimonials or endorsements, display them prominently.

7.    Show the future. Show and describe the future reward for your initiative. Show a picture, literally, of what they are going to get. When you are pitching, show a picture of the intended outcome. For example, show a picture of a chart showing sales going up or attrition going down. Show happy people holding their completion certificates. Showing the future stimulates a dopamine response in the brain that motivates us to take action if we know a reward is coming.

8.     Secure (the right) key senior stakeholders’ buy-in and sponsorship. Before you can move forward, you must get a senior-level executive to buy into your ideas and be your ultimate sponsor. You must have a sponsor whose needs and objectives are fulfilled by your innovation. So, find the most senior leader you can convince, and then ask them for an even higher senior level executive to sponsor your program. And that stakeholder must be convinced this solution is vital; if not, find someone else. You must secure support and funding from upper management before you can move forward. If they are risk averse (unfortunately, many leaders are) convince them to allow you to conduct a lower risk, lower cost pilot. By the way, many great innovations never get off the ground because their creators think they can start with a “grounds-up” approach. That sometimes works but, in most enterprises, decisions must be pushed down from the top.

9.     Prepare for bumps in the road. Make sure your stakeholders clearly understand you will likely encounter unexpected issues with your project. You are clearing a path in unchartered territory. That comes with risks and missteps. Ensure they understand this — and that they understand these issues should be considered learning and research components of the overall project.


Step II: Build the Plan


This is the stage where you put your team together to build the solution. You’ll be bringing a very small group of people together — maybe just you — to build the assets you need before you can execute. Here are the elements I have used:

1.     Build a coalition of support. You need to develop social proof and a group who will internally market for you. Change is a team effort, so assemble a diverse group of influential individuals who can support and drive change. These are your champions and they must have the skills, credibility and power to guide the organization through the process.

2.     Communicate the vision. Effective communication is essential. The phrase, “Tell them what you were going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them” is applicable here. You cannot over-communicate at this point. If you don’t have good visual communication skills, either develop them or find somebody who does. Most people today have short attention spans and must be convinced in a few bullet points. With pictures. Your must consistently and convincingly communicate the vision and the reasons behind the change. This helps everyone, from leadership to employees, understand the direction, feel engaged and overcome resistance.

3.     Create separate communications for each persona. Make sure to build separate storylines for each stakeholder persona. It must address something that is keeping them up at night; they must see it as essential, not optional and that your idea is the best way to solve the problem. You can start with a baseline communication that appeals to all audiences but then, remember, you must craft a “what is in it for them” message. You WIIFM. Yes, it is more work, but it will pay off as you are able to create very specific storylines for each line of business or organizational need. Create a table with each persona showing the toppling pain points and ways your solution eases the pain.

4.     Address and overcome potential objections and concerns. Be prepared for detractors. Maybe a lot of them. (Read the “crabs in the bucket” story to refresh your memory on human behavior.) You may find an equal number of people in your organization who are either skeptical or eager to derail your program, so make sure to understand their concerns and provide counter arguments. Write down potential objections and your rebuttal.

5.     Develop an OCM plan for people, processes, policies and tools. The people part, organizational change management, is the hard part. Start to put together an OCM strategy that looks at the changes that must be made from an org chart perspective. Then look at the solution from a processes perspective. What processes must change? Then, consider what policies may need to be changed and what technology or tools will be impacted. Start with the people part. That is often the most difficult, as it is very difficult to change organizational structures. Many structures have been embedded for long periods of time and have outlasted their usefulness. Often, they are political as some leaders are “empire builders” and are at least equally focused on their own personal careers and reputations as they are with organizational needs.


Step III: Execute


Now you are able to implement real change in an organization with your innovation! This is where you create a solid project plan and test the innovation. Always be ready to pivot when things do not work out as well in the field as they did on paper.


Albert Einstein once said, “A person who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”


1.     Empower people. To implement change, you must remove obstacles and empower employees to act on the vision. They must have permission to fail. You must have executive sponsorship to encourage employee risk-taking and an environment that fosters creativity and failure. You can then provide the necessary resources and support to enable everyone to contribute to the change effort. Ask senior leaders to send regular communications out to the people who are impacted. By the way, you should write their communications for them to send. That way you can ensure they are aligned to your goals.

2.     Build a cross-functional team. At this stage, project management is extremely important. So find a project manager who can juggle everything and keep everyone up-to-date. If you know someone who has Agile, Kanban and/or SCRUM capabilities, bring her onto the team. You will also need a designer, an architect, a developer and a business owner. You need subject matter experts and practitioners. For example, if you are developing a digital badge program or a skills-based hiring solution, you will need at least one team member who knows how to plug your innovation into the existing business. This doesn’t mean that you need five or six people. You may have fewer people who have these combined skills. It’s important to keep your team small and nimble and meet several times a week to keep the project moving and to ensure everyone is in clear communications.


When we conceived the IBM Digital Credentials Program, I assembled only four team members to meet regularly — and that was for an enterprise with 400,000 people. And in reality, only two (Jim Daniels and I) rolled up our sleeves on a daily basis to put the program together.


3.     Test and validate the idea through prototyping. Use an Agile Development approach to build, test and launch elements that can be shown to leaders on a regular, preferably two-week, cycle. Break everything down into small standalone deliverables. Don’t show partially finished parts of a larger solution. Agile development is like building with Legos. Instead of trying to build the whole thing at once, you break it into smaller pieces and build them one by one. Each piece is like a little part of the final project, but each piece can stand alone. After you finish a piece, you can show it to others and get their feedback. This helps you make improvements along the way. Agile development is all about being flexible and adapting as you go.

4.     Continuously gather feedback and adapt the plan as needed. Bring your stakeholders together and solicit honest feedback – and be ready to pivot if you need to. Remind yourself, this is not your baby or child. This is an innovation that may look very different by the time it launches from the solution you had in your head. Real-world solutions must fit the real world. Make sure your stakeholders are assured the project is built to adapt to changing business needs. They should expect that, and be happy to hear you say it.

5.     Continuously communicate the benefits and progress to maintain support. Establish a regular cadence, preferably every two weeks, with your senior executive stakeholders. You want to make sure they see progress, and you also want to incorporate their feedback and ideas into the solution. Don’t wait too long.


Make sure you gather feedback regularly to ensure your program stays on track. If you wait too long, you may end up going down the wrong path and find it difficult to get back on track. And they will lose interest.


Everyone is being seduced by the “Next Big Thing,” so you do not have the luxury of time before they lose interest and move on. In my experience in the enterprise, if you do not have something substantial to show in three months or less, your project will likely be in jeopardy.

6.     Generate short-term wins. Celebrating (and promoting!) small wins along the way will build momentum and maintain enthusiasm for change. Identify quick wins that are meaningful and visible. They provide evidence (read that as “permission to continue”) that the change is working and will reinforce the vision. You must show good news! Like it or not, there is a “shiny object” syndrome in most organizations. Plus, senior leaders need to communicate good news for a whole host of reasons.

7.     Monitor and report progress. Change is a dynamic process, and you must continuously monitor and report progress. In the early stages of your innovation, you outlined what the solution would provide and how you would measure it. That instrument must now be used on a regular basis to report the value and progress of the innovation. Make sure the metrics are in line with the organization’s needs at all times, as they may change. But be prepared to provide at least a monthly report on the value and progress your solution is providing. This not only cements the value of the innovation, it will also provide needed value as a marketing tool to keep your innovation fresh in the minds of decision makers. You can use leader boards, progress reports or other visuals to make it easy to see increasing value.

8.     Anchor enduring change. Nothing will anchor your solution into the fabric of your organization as success. As you build on the momentum created by the success of your innovation, you will begin to ensure your changes are deeply embedded into your organization’s culture. This involves consistent communication to address any remaining (or new) resistance. You must reinforce the new behaviors, systems, and practices by embedding them in the organization’s structure, policies, and culture. This helps ensure that change endures beyond the initial implementation phase. Make sure there are processes or programs that will now require your innovation. If not, your innovation is not essential and will likely be cut.

9.     Adjust strategies. Build change into your program — and instill it in the mindsets of your team. Be ready to adjust strategies as needed. Regularly evaluate results, gather feedback and make necessary course corrections. Always be ready to pivot. Your innovation MUST grow, as a child does, to fit its changing environment.

10. Always be Closing. “Always Be Closing” is one of those phrases that was made famous in “Glengarry Glen Ross”, and it means you must be closing deals, all day, every day. In this case, it means you must continue to sell and resell your innovation after you launch.


New people will come along with no understanding of your innovation, and they will likely challenge your ideas, regardless of their successes.


After two years of solid success with the IBM Digital Badge Program (metrics that showed it performed beyond our wildest expectations), I was approached by a senior leader who told me I had to convince her we should not discontinue the program. Fortunately, I understood her persona (what kept her up at night) and was able to give her what she needed. So, continue to show metrics of success and social proof to “sell” your solution inside and outside your organization.

That’s it. And it is repeatable. I would love to hear from you to see if this resonates or if you have personal experiences which can build on my experiences. Please connect with me on LinkedIn or through Digital Badge Academy or MyInnerGenius!

About the Author:

David Leaser is an award-winning strategist, C-Suite consultant & program lead in L&D and HCM and the co-founder of Digital Badge Academy. He is the founder of the IBM Digital Badge program, a leading-edge digital credential program, the IBM New Collar Certificate Program and IBM’s first cloud-based embedded learning solution. David is an executive at MyInnerGenius and was the senior strategist for IBM’s Smarter Workforce and the Global Skills Initiative. David is a member of the 1Edtech Board advisory group for digital credentials, the national Credential As You Go Advisory Board and a senior advisor to New Markets Venture Capital Group. He provides guidance to the US Department of Labor and the US Department of Education as an employer subject matter expert.

David was appointed as an Industry Fellow in the Center for the Future of Higher Education & Talent Strategy in the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University, an American Tier 1 university. He is the author of thought leadership white papers on talent development, including “Migrating Minds,” “The Social Imperative in Workforce Development” and Wiley’s “Connecting Workplace Learning and Academic Credentials via Digital Badges.”

David holds an M.A. in Communications Management from USC’s Annenberg School and a B.A. in Communications from Pepperdine University. Connect with David through or


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