August 2013 | 

Getting to Yes: Learning the Art and Science of Selling Ideas


Dr. Carmen Guerra had a specific goal in mind when she signed up for Wharton’s Strategic Persuasion Workshop. She needed to convince doctors and other practitioners at the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania to adopt solutions to a serious healthcare issue.

In addition to seeing patients at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Carmen is an administrator and researcher at the Abramson Cancer Center. Her research centers on disparities in health care. “Cancer is one of the largest areas for racial disparities. Minorities are more likely to get cancer, and once they get it they are more likely to die from it. This is a major problem facing health care in the United States, and I took this job to translate research into interventions. I am excited to be part of the solution.”

But, as an MD herself, Guerra is all too familiar with physician training — training that rarely includes a focus on solving “bigger picture” issues. And without a buy-in from those on the front lines of health care, her goal of reducing racial disparities in oncology had little chance of succeeding. She knew she needed to persuade them to adopt solutions rather than trying to force the issue.

Although Guerra works in a medical setting, her description of the hospital mirrors that of many large organizations. “There are a lot of leaders doing their own thing without much cross communication. It’s a large, complex health center. You have authority over your own team, but that’s it.” She was quick to add that she was aware that even when you have it, authority isn’t the best method for driving change. “In the program [Strategic Persuasion Workshop: The Art and Science of Selling Ideas] we talked about saving authority for emergencies. Even if you have it, using it too often can undermine your ability to get people to get things done.”

Guerra explains that you need more than authority and control over resources to move initiatives forward. “The program helps you understand how to be more influential. In a large organization you need that skill. Money and authority are not, a lot of the time, the right reasons to get people to make changes. You want them on board because they believe in the change, not because you told them they had to do it.”

Using what she learned in the program, she first identified the barriers to persuasion: beliefs, relationship, interest, credibility, and communication channel (or BRICC). She developed a presentation that spelled out each barrier in detail, including the fact that individuals are more likely to be persuaded if they have a vested interest in the outcome. She offered some potential practitioner interests, and explained how they should be communicated by people the providers have a positive, trusting relationship with.

Guerra then laid out a series of action steps to help get as many practitioners on board with the change as possible. She explained how early adopters could become promoters, and that there would inevitably be a few who would only be persuaded once everyone else had made the change. Sometimes trying to convince “laggards,” she suggested, is a waste of time because they are against change.

Her well-organized pitch worked exactly as she intended it to. “The following week I got several emails informing me that the Chief Administrative Officer of the cancer service line requested that I give the presentation again to other stakeholders. We are now going to implement it.

“You can read about these concepts,” she says, “but the program helps you experience them. [Faculty and learning directors] Richard Shell and Mario Moussa have you put them right to work. You leave with new tools and you know how to apply them.

“I haven’t stopped thinking about Richard Shell’s challenge. He told our group we should work to become the most influential people in our organizations. Most of us don’t have a lot of resources or authority, but we can become good at influencing. I think about it every day as I work on this skill.”