This blog first appeared as Dave Farber's piece for Medium
By Dave Farber
Every manager in the corporate world has a wishlist of projects that have been relegated to the back burner. There are research questions that should get answered, product concepts that should get explored, and processes that should be made more efficient. Yet resources are scarce and there is constant pressure to keep costs in line. Ultimately, those projects that aren’t exciting get deprioritized, regardless of the potential value they could add.
It’s a common complaint I hear. Because a project doesn’t showcase a buzzworthy new technology or because it only produces modest near-term returns (despite its potential for the long-term), sponsors shy away. And for good reason. If their bosses don’t see it as a priority and will be underwhelmed, is it really the best use of resources?
Sometimes the answer is yes. The fact that a project isn’t sexy doesn’t mean that it isn’t going to have a meaningful impact, reduce key risks, or set up the organization to succeed down the road. Regardless of why your project is important, I offer three strategies for getting buy-in from above.
Use cost-effective research to build your case. Data drives decisions, and it will be essential for bringing stakeholders on board as you make your case for resourcing a project. If you’re struggling to get a project sponsored, you likely don’t have a big budget to go out and conduct original research. But that’s not always necessary. A small number of short customer interviews can go a long way in highlighting where different types of customers diverge. Industry benchmarks can highlight returns that others have achieved by implementing a new way of doing something. Data from existing research can show the magnitude of a problem, even if only by way of analogy. While you may not be able to get the perfect data to drive home your point, having some form of concrete research to rely on will prove that you’re serious while also lending support to your position.
Satisfy a job that your potential sponsor is trying to get done. We often use “Jobs to be Done” as a lens to explore the needs that customers have. But it’s important to remember that project sponsors have their own functional and emotional jobs to accomplish. They have bosses to impress, performance goals to hit, and projects that they want to get funded as well. Have a short meeting with each of the stakeholders who might be involved in deciding whether your project goes forward. This will allow you to frame your work in terms that reflect the goals of your would-be sponsors. It might also illuminate ways to tie together projects that are important to you and others under the umbrella of a larger initiative.
Keep the organization’s broader goals in mind. As important as your project may be, it may not be what is dominating leadership’s attention at the time — at least not directly. For that reason, you need to make the connection between your project and their priorities painfully obvious. When getting buy-in, make sure it’s clear how the project will help advance the strategic goals the organization has set. Identify how your project fits with the larger challenges the company is facing, not just the problem that’s diverting attention right now. By doing so, you’ll help ensure that stakeholders are interested in your project for its duration. While responding to an immediate problem can help you get noticed right away, this often results in leaders losing interest and sidelining your project as they move onto the next fire to fight.
Not every project that you want to take on is going to be exciting, but that doesn’t mean we should leave those unsexy projects destined for stagnation. If you believe a project is important, then it’s worth helping others understand why that’s true. Find some data to support your argument, keep the organization’s priorities in mind, and figure out what’s important to the potential sponsor for your project. By doing those three things, you’re giving your project the best chance of getting noticed.
Dave Farber is a strategy and innovation consultant at New Markets Advisors. He helps companies understand customer needs, build innovation capabilities, and develop plans for growth. He is a co-author of the award-winning book Jobs to be Done: A Roadmap for Customer-Centered Innovation.