The power of positive asking

“Why won’t they give me the resources I need? They hired me to do a job, they give me all these goals, and then they won’t give me the staff/budget/IT/authority/fill-in-the-blank I need to get the job done.” Sound familiar? I hear comments like this so frequently, I sometimes wonder how any business ever gets done. Here’s the thing: It’s the rare management that gives you what you ask for just because you ask for it, want it, even desperately must have it if you are to succeed. They’re balancing competing demands, pet projects, and different worldviews. So how do you get what you need? After all, you’re trying to meet their goals, not even necessarily your own.

Whether it’s fair or not, you need a process, a case, and an approach that makes clear that you don’t want what you want for yourself, you want it for them and for the success of the business. You must find a way to identify, explicitly, “what’s in it for them.” You do the legwork that makes the initiative as uncomplicated, safe, and nonthreatening — and as likely to pan out — as possible. To do this, of course, you need skills in mind reading, sales, and empathy, at a minimum. If you don’t have time to learn all of those, here are some of the essential concepts.

Assuming you want to make a strong case, you need to know the most compelling ways to reach your management. What’s the history of the issue you’re working on? Who were the players? Why and how did initiatives fail in the past? And then there’s the specific role of the individual decision makers. How do they like to receive information, and in what formats do they believe it?

Taste actually counts in these things, but the taste that counts probably isn’t yours, so you’ll need to learn to be persuasive in their medium of choice. Some organizations just will not make a move if it isn’t accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation — whether it’s relevant or not. (See Edward Tufte, guru of presenting data in compelling ways, on the perils of PowerPoint.) Do your decision makers prefer formal meetings in their offices? Expository writing? And is that writing an e-mail, or a real memo on a real piece of paper, accompanied by real exhibits?

Then there’s the matter of ownership. Are you working on a priority that management has already declared their own or one that you’d like to get on their list? Finding the links between their priorities and yours always gives you a leg up.

As you’re preparing your presentation, remember that most decisions are made on the basis of emotions, nonrational thought, instinct, and leaps of faith — which doesn’t necessarily make them wrong — and are subsequently justified with and couched in logic and rational arguments. The elapsed time between the mind being made up and the attendant rationalizations and justifications may be only nanoseconds, and this is as true for you as it is for your boss. So if either one of you seems to be reacting irrationally during a decision process, you probably are.

Typically management doesn’t want to hear a reiteration of the entire problem, its history, and who said what to whom, although they may want to quiz you at intervals to make sure you know what that history is and have taken it into account. This may be particularly true if your proposal falls into an area that has lacked success for some time or that has been associated with people who didn’t work out well in other ways.

And oddly enough, although you may frequently hear the cry, “Don’t bring me problems! Bring me solutions!” the strange truth is that many bosses will reject solutions that appear too complete, too pat, too tidy. It’s important to get the right balance between your situation summary, which should be a brief statement of the critical points of the circumstances you face, including both the downsides and the opportunities, and your request for budget, resources, or activities.

If you have no experience in drafting cost justifications, or if you’re not experienced making the case in your current organizational environment, find a seasoned “budget buddy” to work with, someone who can help you include everything that this management likes to consider, with a focus on the factors that have been persuasive historically. And don’t limit your proposal just to the “hard” costs or revenue that will absolutely be incurred or accrued if your initiative is launched. Whether or not they’re part of the explicit budget format you need to use, be sure you include in your reasoning the “direct effect” streams in and out — that is, those costs or revenue that will change elsewhere in the organization as the result of your initiative.

Some of these indirect financial impacts may include various forms of halo effect, such as brand image or staff retention on the positive side, or customer dissatisfaction and employee churn on the negative side. Another way of looking at cost and impact is to be sure you’re covering the expenses you’ll have to pay for in actual cash outlays, as well as the potential revenue or other opportunities you’ll lose if you don’t buy or pay for or initiate these actions, and what incremental revenue (or cost reductions) you’ll gain if you do. While I’m not an advocate of padding, I strongly believe in asking for enough the first time instead of having to come back to the well multiple times because you need just a little bit more — another staffer, a couple of thousand dollars — all of which could suggest you didn’t figure your numbers accurately at the beginning.

Some of your proposed numbers will be based on a variety of assumptions, including your department’s standard operating procedures, industry practice, and competitive research. Be prepared to substantiate those assumptions and keep track of what they were so that you can explain them not only during your presentation but also once your initiative is under way and in relation to your eventual results. There’s almost nothing worse for your credibility than being grilled about how you came up with a number and not remembering or having to dig through stacks of paper while everyone else in the room stares at you.

And when it comes to credibility, here’s a tip: If your audience questions your methodology and accepts your explanation — and not just permits you to go on but clearly indicates comfort or agreement with your explanation — you’re fine. But if they question your methodology repetitively, and you feel you’ve already explained it clearly, you should assume that it’s not the methodology per se that troubles them. Instead they probably don’t trust something at a gut level; it could be you, or your recommendation, or your facts, but you are not likely to resolve the issue during your presentation. You’re better off identifying the apparent dissonance, probing for the reasons, and scheduling a new, revised presentation once you’ve marshaled the additional facts or retuned your argument.

Keep in mind that you may need to vary the specific components and the level of detail for the audience you’re pitching. Although you should have access to all your numbers in every presentation, some listeners will want only top-line figures, while others will not feel comfortable unless they drill down to absolute minutiae.

You can really strengthen your case if you take both your statistics and your presentation for a test run or two. These don’t have to be formal, but working through a series of beta presentations can give you access to useful information you wouldn’t have had on your own. Your test listeners can help you verify your assumptions, challenge your case so that you can shore up any of its weaknesses in advance, even lay the groundwork for persuading some of your decision makers or influencers in advance of your formal presentation.

Potential allies in the company are a good test audience; you get extra chances to convince them, and their questions can help you refine both your arguments and your numbers before you make your pitch. In every organization are individuals whose support or lack of complaint adds credibility; they’re not necessarily in management but are considered subject-matter experts. Seek these people out and collaborate with them; just remember that you’ll probably need to return the favor at some point.

If you’re feeling courageous or have a clear understanding of your risks, it can be remarkably helpful and bracing to ask for an early, informal review with colleagues who typically take an opposing view to yours. You’re better off doing this one on one instead of in a group setting, but what could be better than strengthening your rebuttals before the formal presentation? The value of a “loyal opposition” cannot be overstated.

Where you can, tie the specifics of your proposal to the goals that management has already put on the table. Sometimes these have been stated formally, other times they’re part of the oral culture, but either way it’s easier to progress down the path that you want to travel if it’s heading in the same general direction they want to go themselves.

The information and positioning you use to make your case need to vary with the taste and style of your audience. It’s generally most productive to point out to your audience any weaknesses in your plan yourself, and to couple the acknowledgment tightly with the mitigating or compensating factors. The downsides of your proposal might include such pitfalls as barriers to success, either organizational or environmental; cost complications; and factors beyond your direct control. You can offset such negatives, however, with contingency plans, recovery options, even a clear identification of the risks of inaction.

You’ll figure out eventually if the nub of the proposal needs to be your manager’s idea — which means a preparatory sequence of informal discussions to give you the time to plant the seed of the idea and your boss enough time to turn it into an assignment for you — or if the idea will remain yours. Either way, you’ll need to make sure you have the appropriate data available to back up your conclusions. You can never afford to have your proposal or prep sessions degenerate into whining, no matter how long you’ve been pitching this very same issue.

Compelling material might include the typical facts and figures in formats your management recognizes as credible, but these should be accompanied by your own formats if the preexisting templates don’t support your argument clearly. Including both short-term and long-term impacts adds credibility. Illustrative anecdotes about individual customers and their reactions or about employees and their accomplishments can be helpful to include, in just the way that U.S. presidents making their State of the Union speeches like to point out relevant symbolic guests in the gallery.

The timing of your pitch is important too. In the same way that a sales process often benefits from trial closes before the real close to gauge initial support and flush out objections, you may need to make mini advance presentations in a number of forums to lay the groundwork, reinforce the value of your goals, try out the weight of your evidence, etc. And you never know when you’ll suddenly have a convenient moment of attention with a crucial decision maker, so it’s good to be prepared with a thumbnail sketch of your arguments and data.

It’s never easy to take criticism, but you actually have a better chance of getting your proposal through if you can teach yourself to take hits well. So be conscious, first, of how you respond to critical feedback, both physically and verbally. Be aware of defensive or negative postures and gestures, including crossing your arms, shaking your head, putting up your hand in a “stop” sign, and worst of all, eye-rolling. Also watch for postures that can be read as weakness, such as bowing your head and listening or speaking with your hand over your mouth.

Verbally, be prepared with neutral, open response statements: “That’s a good question. Please turn to Exhibit B and I’ll show you how we dealt with that.” Be ready to probe: “I can see that this is an area of concern for you. Can you tell me a little more about why you think we should be using a different cost per person?” And remember the tip about being questioned more than once. Even if the question is the same, don’t use exactly the same language to answer it or you’ll sound like you’re arguing; if the questioner persists more than twice, table the issue, offer to gather more data or resolve the question offline, and move on. Or reschedule the remaining discussion until you can be prepared to overcome this particular objection.

Once you get approval, it’s worth a little effort to ensure that you’re continuing to make a compelling justification. At this point, you’re justifying your management’s faith in you and your ability both to propose and to implement. So after you take a little breath of relief, do a little arm pump of triumph (in private, of course), and thank every single person who gave you data, listened to your early positioning, or helped you with your charts, make sure you’re intensely involved in responsible, accountable project management. Now that you’ve got the go-ahead, it’s the quality of execution and your results that set the context for your future proposals.

Make sure that your progress and reporting of milestones are being circulated to the appropriate decision makers. Acknowledge any setbacks promptly, and quickly make your recovery steps known. After the initiative is really rolling, start the tracking process that will demonstrate the payback or payoff. Document and circulate news of improvements, and be conscious of creating positive public relations outreach. Invite people in to your department to see the new equipment or meet the new employees; circulate samples of the new product or promotion; tell the stories if there’s nothing physical to show.

Management is always a moving target, so anticipating their concerns and staying in touch will help burnish your reputation for effectiveness. Don’t wait for them to come find you with questions and problems; go visit, publish, promulgate. In the same way that you need to tailor your original proposal to the ears of different constituents, it also pays to tailor your reporting to the interests and priorities of various audience members.

And keep your perspective. Despite the difficulty of getting proposals approved, or approved in their original, most-desired form, management is not a different breed of human being from the rest of us. (Sometimes we’re the management that’s doing the refusing!) Your management does not lie awake at night looking for opportunities and reasons to turn you down. Your boss doesn’t have ESP either and therefore doesn’t know what you know about why this particular request is so critical to your department’s well-being or why this particular budget item must remain intact, until you make the point.

The rules differ slightly from company to company. But you can play the game of request and refusal well if you plan ahead for the data, the presentation, the collaboration, and the follow-up. And sometimes you’ll win.

Liz Kislik is president of Rockville Centre, NY-based operations/management consultancy Liz Kislik Associates.

Rule of Three Requests

When you’re preparing a pitch to ask your company’s management for something, you should follow the Rule of Three Requests. This is the equivalent of an “elevator speech” for your most crucial priorities. Always be ready to sketch out in just a few sentences three specific requests or concerns, a short value statement (which you could position either in terms of the potential gain or in terms of the downside if you don’t move forward), and what resources you’ll need to move forward, even if you’re just asking for their vote of support to flesh out your presentation at another time.

Why three requests? In the taxi, the restroom, the smokers’ hangout, or the elevator, you’ll usually have time for only one request. But if you have a willing ear, you want to make the most of the moment, so it’s best to be ready with a couple of additional requests. On the other hand, when you ask for more than three things, the experience can become oppressive to the listener, and you can be perceived as too needy or too aggressive.