You can get others excited about supporting your internal ideas, even in a large organization with lots of red tape. The formal requirements of project proposals are often what makes it difficult to get others on board – the build-up, expectations, seriousness, etc. Startup incubator Y Combinator found that when early stage startups more closely resembled toys than serious companies, they were more likely to attract a large volume of early users, investment, and support. You can apply this concept to help gain champions for your own internal ideas, which in turn will build your reputation as someone with the organizational savvy to get things done.
Apply these tactics in any situation where the goal is to pitch and gain support for a new idea. When formulating the idea and discussing it with others, treat it like a toy. Don’t overburden it with high expectations and don’t take it too seriously. Treating ideas more like toys improves their quality and helps them to gain traction within an organization.
STARTUPS AND TOYS
It is not uncommon for a startup (or successful former startup) to look and feel more like a toy than a big business. Facebook started out as something to do for fun in your dorm room. Google’s name sounds like a board game. Airbnb is reminiscent of a sleepover, with its nod to the transient air mattress.
Why do these tech giants remind us of toys, and why does it matter? Because some startups resemble toys, we see them in a different light – we don’t have high expectations for them, and we don’t take them seriously. This helps those startups gain lots of people who are interested in using and telling others about their product. Those new users in turn also have a good experience with the product, because it felt like playing with a toy to them, not encountering a big company. There are two main ways a toy works its magic – it comes with low expectations, and it puts the focus on enjoyment, not seriousness.
Set low expectations
People have low expectations for toys. Generally, having low expectations for something means it’s more likely that it will lead to a pleasurable experience rather than a poor one. It is less likely to be disappointing and frustrating. Early on, Facebook gained a large following of happy, interested users because it was fun. People didn’t expect it to do anything productive for them necessarily. Pleasing users so that they keep coming back and tell others about the product is important. Setting low expectations for your product is one way to do this.
Setting low expectations for a startup in a financial sense also gives it the space it needs to grow. Revenue and profitability targets early on are unrealistic for many early startups. Having high expectations financially can short circuit the creative process needed for an idea to fully blossom into its most compelling form.
Dial down the seriousness
How else should an early stage startup be like a toy? It shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Being serious means being sober – avoiding risks, errors, and not getting too excited about ideas that break the mold. That in turn leads to stifling the experimentation that was the very lifeblood of the good idea.
The other reason many startups don’t emit a serious vibe is because it could serve as a warning to incumbents – watch out, serious market player preparing to enter the <fill in the blank> space. Nope. Instead, startups that look like toys can fly under the radar, avoiding the tactics that the market leaders would inevitably employ to shut down a serious competitor.
YOUR INTERNAL IDEAS AS TOYS
Here are a few specific ways you can apply these insights the next time you are trying to refine your own ideas and get them approved.
Play with the idea as a toy
When in the early stages of idea creation, don’t be afraid to spend time with the idea to make it better. Just as a baby can sit and entertain himself with a single good toy for hours, sit with the idea for a while and examine different aspects of it to see if it works. If it can’t capture your interest, it most likely won’t compel others either. Once the idea consistently attracts your time and attention in idle moments, it is close enough to a toy to share with others.
Be intentional about sharing the toy with others
Choose your words wisely – Be intentional about language. Avoid using words like “proposal,” “business case,” or anything involving organizational “commitment,” “capabilities,” or “investment.” Don’t give your idea a formal sounding name or an official title. When you speak about it with others, don’t build it up or be nervous about its success. Remember, it’s a toy, it’s not supposed to have targets or expectations to fall short of.
Engage appropriately – Think carefully about how to engage others on the idea, and with whom to share it. You wouldn’t create a fifty page slide deck and set up a formal meeting to show someone a new toy. Likewise, don’t overthink the first time the idea is introduced to someone. If there’s a team-building event or corporate retreat coming up, mention the idea in passing, over a beer, coffee, or lunch.
And on that note, don’t discuss the idea with just anyone. Mentioning it to a co-worker or manager might come across threatening, especially if they’re the competitive sort. They might make the idea their own, or poke so many holes in it that all that’s visible are the issues. Instead, think of a senior executive who you’ve worked with in the past, someone who respects your work and has good connections and political capital organizationally. Float the idea with that person first, so as not to invite roadblocks or undue criticism from peers.
Leverage the corporate context – The success of the idea is not only dependent on the appetite of the founder for improvement and iteration, but also on their ability to build or acquire the organizational savvy for implementation. (Think administrative requirements like HR and accounting).
The good news is, if you’re part of a large organization, it’s likely that those capabilities already exist. Treating an idea like a toy – not taking it too seriously or overburdening it with expectations – can gain the support of the people with the keys to those elements of the organization. Of course, these tactics will only take the idea so far. Eventually, it will be crucial to put targets in place and get serious about how to engage and speak with others about the idea. But, dialing down the expectations and seriousness of the efforts, at least externally, could get traction for the idea in the near term.