February 2009

Volume 24 Number 02

{ End Bracket } - Your Innovative Ideas

By Eric N. Bush | February 2009

Perhaps you have had the experience of talking to an executive about an idea that you thought was so fantastic it would be your ticket to fame and fortune. Much to your amazement, you were told, "Thanks for coming to me with that idea, but we can't even include half of the features we originally planned for our most recent release! We don't need any more ideas. Besides, if your idea was really so fabulous, my top-level architects would have already thought of it. Now run along back to your team and do what you have been told, and leave the innovating to others who are more experienced."

You would then come to realize, as I did, that having that next great innovative idea is only half the battle. Perhaps the greater challenge is in getting someone to actually listen to you and provide the support needed in order to implement it.

Surprise! It is not the idea that gets people's attention; it's your credentials. So if you don't already have an established track record as an innovator, you will have a harder time getting people to listen to you. Interestingly, a venture fund company is much more likely to fund someone who has been a failure at several startups than a newcomer who has never been involved in a startup before.

The value of the idea is almost secondary. Why is this, you ask? This concept has been rooted in standard business management rules that have existed for years. One of those rules says that it is better to ride out the good and bad times with a few smart people you know and trust, because they will grow from their mistakes and get things right eventually.

Somewhere in MBA school case study folklore there is a story about a corporate vice president who just lost a million dollars for his company. He promptly goes to the office of the president and hands over his resignation letter. The president rips up the letter and tells the VP that he is not about to give up on him, especially since he has just gone through such a costly and valuable learning experience.

If you are not already one of those known and trusted, don't give up. There is still hope for you to take your great idea and get someone to listen to it. However, if you are going to present your idea to business executives, realize that these people deal at a whole different level of engagement every single day. Therefore, you have to be very professional in your execution if you want to be taken seriously.

When I joined Microsoft in 1997, part of my job was to visit IT organizations and discover the issues they faced when managing such extensive equipment. While visiting a 10,000-machine datacenter, I was shown how workers had to cycle the power every three hours on every machine because of software and hardware reliability issues.

Later, I went back to my office and started thinking about creating health monitoring software automated actions that could address all of the problems I had just learned about in the datacenter. After speaking with various executives, I finally found myself giving a presentation to Bill Gates. My idea became a reality; today, it is sold as Microsoft System Center Operations Manager.

Based on my experiences, here is a checklist of important questions you need to answer before you consider approaching anyone about your innovation:

  • What is the market opportunity?
  • Who is the competition?
  • Who are the customers and what are their scenarios?
  • How do we differentiate our offering?
  • What are the risks?
  • What key partnerships need to be established?
  • How does it fit in with the overall company strategy?
  • What is the timeline and cost?

The next step is to find the right people to influence, give them a brief sales pitch, and then ask for a more appropriate time to give them a complete demonstration.

At the presentation, you need to command attention right from the start. To do this, just keep the presentation short and simple. Begin by framing the problem and then propose your solution. Conclude with your requests: Do you want funding? Do you want them to point you to other people with whom you can collaborate? Be thoroughly prepared to address all of their concerns, and don't skimp on your salesmanship skills. The art of getting people to listen is as important a part of innovating as having a great idea.

Eric N. Bush is a Software Development Lead in the Engineering Excellence group at Microsoft. He works as an internal consultant and classroom instructor driving engineering and organizational improvements in the areas of people skills, process, and technology. You can reach Eric at ericbush@microsoft.com.