August 2011 | 

See It My Way: Learning the Art and Science of Persuasion

see it my way.

Richard Shell has met hundreds of frustrated executives. The co-author of The Art of Woo: Using Strategic Persuasion to Sell Your Ideas has been leading persuasion workshops at Wharton for years. "Everybody generally comes to our program frustrated. They have good ideas, but run into endless barriers at implementation."

There's one mistake that a majority of these executives make, notes Shell. "You get excited about your idea, or you're tasked with getting someone else's idea sold and implemented. So you head to the top — you get that idea in front of the decision maker, bypassing layers of people. And then you hit disaster: there's no interest. Game over. When this happens, people tend to blame the decision maker for not 'getting it.' But the blame often rests with you for not thinking hard enough about what needed to be done before you had that meeting."

Shell and co-author Mario Moussa teach in their Strategic Persuasion Workshop that selling an idea takes planning. "What we call 'The Art of Woo,' of strategic persuasion, is a process with many steps. You don't go to the top first. Instead, you work your way there one step at a time. That's the strategic piece," he explains. "Slow the process down, and plan it, by breaking it into steps. Once you master these steps, your buy-in success rate will improve."

One of the first steps, says Shell, is creating a champion. "Research suggests that even uncomplicated decisions require contact with an average of eight people, and more complex decisions often involve 20 or more. But who are these people and how do you connect with them? Life isn't kind enough for you to know the whole social network of a high-level group. But somebody does — and you can figure out who that person is if you take the time.

"Perform a social network analysis. Talk to people in the beginning not to sell ideas but about the social system. Who has influence in this process, who has overall authority, and who is the best first champion? Instead of starting by selling, survey the political landscape. You need a sophisticated understanding of how your organization works, who pulls the strings, and how things get done. Find out who you need to talk to and in what order."

Once you identify a champion, someone who buys in and will partner with you through the process, keep that person focused. Shell continues, "Your champion often has the right relationships, but she's not asking the right question. The value you add as a strategic crusader is asking that question and keeping her concentrated on it. Locating all of the influencers along the way takes time and focus, and each one can help guide you to the next. Skipping a layer can kill the process pretty quickly."

But what if your champion wants to take over, claiming your idea? Let them, advises Shell. "Sometimes you have to let the champion take some credit for the idea. You're creating a partner, and giving away some credit is one of the currencies you have to offer. Remember that they want to advance their own goals too. If you want to sell your idea, to make it happen, you have to be willing create a champion and give up some control. As you and your champion gain momentum, bringing more influencers on board, your idea will gain traction."

And what about those frustrated executives who come to Wharton with ideas they can't sell? "Once they understand our model, we look closely at their ideas and how they've tried to sell them. It's personal. Different drills involve working in groups, talking with partners, and getting feedback from the class. They come away with real insights from people outside their industry, who say 'have you really thought about this,' or 'you're not as far along as you think,' or 'it doesn't look like you've identified the right people.' Understanding where they're stuck — and working with a model for navigating through the process — puts them on that path to better results."