Last week I had a lengthy phone call with an IT executive at a large, Midwestern company who I have been working with for a few months. The company is in the process of assimilating a sizable acquisition and there is a significant item that, if not dealt with, will likely blow up in his face. The problem he faces is that he can’t seem to sell the company’s CEO and other key executives on the need for addressing it as they are preoccupied with other things. His question to me was “How can I be more effective in persuading these people?”
All of us, no matter what our industry or role, need to be able to effectively persuade others. We may need to sell an idea that we want to implement or, as in the case of my client, persuade others of the importance of taking action on something that may not be on the top of their list. To make a credible argument we need to demonstrate that we understand and have thoroughly analyzed the issue, that we have been open-minded in our analysis, and that we are not presenting an “either/or” situation that will likely put the other party on the defensive.
My suggestion was to give them a few carefully thought out options rather than presenting a single solution. Here is why:
People like to have choices. It’s that simple. Knowing that there is more than one way to solve a problem also provides a certain level of psychological comfort when the problem seems complicated or is poorly understood.
Thinking through various solutions helps you arrive at better ones. The very act of working through two or more scenarios can help you better understand the problem as well as open avenues that you may not have previously considered.
Proposing options make you appear more thoughtful and open-minded. Let’s face it, one of the most frequent criticisms of IT organizations is that they are rigid and have a “my way or the highway” approach. Offering options helps to diffuse this bias.
Here are a few suggestions for formulating and presenting options.
Remember, doing nothing is always an option. It may not be the best one but it is critical that you acknowledge this (more about this one later).
Offer no more than four choices, three if possible, one of which is doing nothing. Too many choices equal no choices. The ideal is probably three. Too many will serve to confuse and may suggest that you really don’t know what to do! Several years ago I had a very bright individual, a Ph.D. in chemistry, who worked for me. She had a tendency to be very detail-oriented and made everything more complicated than it needed to be. I will never forget a meeting we had where she wanted my advice on a decision she needed to make. She produced a nine-page spreadsheet with probably 30 options! Needless to say, I sent her back to re-think this a bit further. Don’t do that.
Explain the options objectively, clearly and factually. Be very clear about the pros and cons of each scenario including doing nothing.
Know which option you prefer and why. Withhold your recommendation until the end. Give an opportunity for questions and discussions. The ideal outcome is to be asked, “What do you recommend?”
Selling ideas and persuading others is a critical business skill that will serve you well no matter what you do. Proposing ideas as a small number of thoughtful options is one way to persuade others by bringing them into your thinking process and demonstrating thoughtfulness and open mindedness.