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Drive Innovation: Suggest Ideas, Don’t Propose Them

How something is presented has an effect on how it is received.

Rocket science!? No, it is common sense. Yet, we sometimes neglect the subtleties of presentation and persuasion… especially when we are excited about an idea or innovation.

So many innovative ideas get quashed early – never making it off the whiteboard. Not because the ideas were bad, but due to the way they were presented.

Psychologists have found that the more assertively you express an idea, the more likely it is the person hearing it will resist it.

Wait… higher assertiveness = higher resistance?

Wow! That’s really important insight!

Experiments were conducted in which an idea was presented to someone in one of two ways: either as a proposal or as a suggestion.

  • As a proposal, the idea was given as a statement: “What you should do is…”
  • As a suggestion, the same idea was expressed as a question or reflection: “I wonder if…?”

When an idea was proposed, almost half of the recipients received it skeptically and challenged the idea. (Sound familiar?)

When the same idea was suggested, only 1 out of five recipients stated difficulties.

Telling people what to do can make them defensive, push back, and shut ideas down. Putting forward a suggestion makes it impersonal – allowing the idea to be adopted instead of forced in the mind.

[figure 1]
As indicated in [figure 1] if you suggest ideas, they are more likely to be adopted and developed than if you propose them.

When presenting new ideas – especially in situations where you expect others to be defensive – avoid phrases that begin with:

  • What you should do is…
  • I think you ought to…
  • The best idea would be to…
  • If I were you I would…

Instead, offer your ideas as suggestions. Take out references to “you.” Try these:

  • I wonder if it would be possible to…
  • Has anyone ever thought of…
  • I don’t suppose we could…
  • What if it were…

That same persuasion we use to woo customers should also be considered when we’re trying to develop innovative ideas within our organizations. Next time you have a “crazy idea that just might work,” don’t propose, suggest it.

I learned this technique from the the book Out Of The Box: 101 Ideas For Thinking Creatively by Rob Eastaway. The study was mentioned in the book Improve Your People Skills by Peter Honey.

This article was originally published on the MarketingProf’s DailyFix blog.

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  1. Chantelle
    ChantelleApril 28,12

    Although I agree with this idea, it also seems to go against advice certain advice for being a strong leader. Well, particularly for women in the corporate world.

    The idea is that if you basically “qualify” your thoughts with the statements listed here like “I wonder if…” you are sabotaging yourself by perhaps indicating that you yourself may be unsure of the idea. People then don’t see you as a leader, and your ideas may still get squashed.

    I don’t believe this 100% in all situations as I also don’t think it’s good to be so authoritarian that people begin to resent your proposed ideas. But, proposing in a way that shows you DO believe in the idea (as opposed to appearing to shove it down throats) is still a valuable exercise for personal development, in my opinion. Again, not 100% of the time, but I think that is to be gauged by the person and context.

  2. Steve Birkett
    Steve BirkettJanuary 17,13

    Perhaps there is a middle road here, with ‘soft proposals’? I see Chantelle’s point, in that an opening like “I don’t suppose we could…” already indicates a lack of confidence in what comes next, even though the idea is to lighten the blow. Semantics become fairly important here, so something more empowering yet open like “What if we were to…” or “Consider the idea that…” may yield the same softness as a suggestion, but own more of the solution in the manner of a proposal.

    But, then, that’s just my suggestion… ;-)

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