Pushing Sisyphus’ Boulder: Three Suggestions for Getting Your Big Idea Over the Hump

June 2017

By A. Craig Dixon, MS, and Ashley Vincent Poore, MA, of the Coalfield Regional Healthcare Network

Okay, “big-idea people.” We know. You have a plan that is just what this company needs. It’s radically different, and it could change the way we do business – the way the whole industry does business. But why won’t anybody listen? “Big-idea people” trying to get buy-in for their plans can feel like Sisyphus, condemned to an eternity of rolling a boulder uphill, only to see it roll back to the bottom of the hill at the first sign of resistance. Let us offer some suggestions to overcome organizational inertia to get your project moving.

Suggestion 1: Use data to define the problem. Chances are, the folks you are pitching your idea to are not going to be excited about your idea simply for its intrinsic value. You have to convince them it is going to solve a problem they care about. In fact, you may have to first demonstrate to them that there is a problem. How do you know there is a problem? What data brought you to your conclusion? While quantitative data (i.e., hard numbers) often represent the best way of communicating the problem, don’t underestimate the value of a couple of compelling anecdotes (qualitative data). Sometimes, a particularly bad experience or an incisive quote can be just as effective as a table of figures or a chart.

Your data should answer the questions your audience is likely to have, and do so in a compelling manner. How bad is the problem? Is the problem worse locally than in similar locales elsewhere? How will we know if we have fixed the problem or mitigated its severity? What negative consequences will result if the problem is not addressed, and how bad could they be? What positive outcomes are possible if it is, and how could that benefit your organization? The aim of your data is to provoke emotion in your audience – emotions like empathy (“I have experienced a problem similar to this before”), outrage (“How can this problem exist/be this bad?”), or moral obligation (“It would be wrong to allow this problem to continue”). Once your audience is convinced that there is a problem that absolutely must be solved, they’ll be looking for ideas, and it just so happens that you have one.

Suggestion 2: Leverage your professional relationships. It is usually a good idea to build a core group of supporters around your idea before presenting it widely. When considering recruits for your team, think about who else would benefit from this idea being implemented. Who is also passionate about the issue being addressed? Getting passionate team members on board will broaden your potential impact and improve your credibility, helping your proposal’s chances of being successful. Think about the people you already know. You don’t have to go right to the top of your own or another company’s organizational chart. Reach out to people with whom you already have a good working relationship. You have a better chance to get buy-in from someone you already have a good rapport with. 

When you pitch the idea to prospective partners, don’t present them with a fully formed plan. Allowing your colleagues to help in the development gives them more investment in the proposal and increases their engagement. Even if input from others strays a bit from what you originally envisioned, a really good plan formulated by five people will almost always get buy-in faster than a perfect one created by one person. The opportunity to include their own agendas will possibly broaden the project into something more beneficial that you hadn’t previously considered.

Suggestion 3: Promote outcomes, not actions. No matter how elegant or brilliant your idea, far fewer people are likely to be interested in the idea itself as the outcomes it can produce. You should be prepared to talk about the latter at least as much as the former. Be realistic with what you believe you can accomplish. There is seldom one solution that completely solves a problem. You are just trying to take a bite out of the problem. How big will that bite be, realistically? Don’t sandbag so badly that no one gets excited about the idea’s potential, but it is often wise to under-promise and over-deliver. Doing the reverse can really damage your credibility.

This is another place where a mix of quantitative and qualitative information can really help. First, try to quantify the benefits of implementing your idea (e.g., “We could save $10,000 per year” or “We could reduce downtime by 10 percent”). Then try to describe what your department, organization, network, or community would look like if these results were achieved. Who will be affected – within your organization and beyond – and how? What changes will they notice in their day-to-day lives? Seeing this complete picture can really help get people excited about your idea’s potential.

Whether you’re proposing a grant project or working to get a group of partners together to solve a problem locally, we believe you will find these suggestions helpful in considering how to approach the process. By using meaningful data, including colleagues who will also benefit, and promoting the proposal’s potential outcomes, you can get your big-idea boulder “over the hump,” moving quickly and effectively from idea to implementation. Then, you can kick back and enjoy some well-deserved nectar and ambrosia.

A. Craig Dixon is a grants specialist at Madisonville Community College (MCC) in Madisonville, Kentucky. Since transitioning to his current position in 2011, he has secured over $4 million in grant funding for the college from agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the Health Resources and Services Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Delta Regional Authority. He has been selected to present at national conferences hosted by the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD) and the League for Innovation in the Community College, and his work has been published electronically by the Council on Resource Development and the Kentucky Office of Rural Health. He holds a Master of Science in Computer Science from Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science from Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky. 

Ashley Vincent Poore is the Director of Education and Research at Baptist Health Madisonville (BHM) in Madisonville, Kentucky. Her 15-year career in education includes ten years at Madisonville Community College, first as an adult education instructor and later as director of the college’s assessment center. For two and a half years, she coordinated educational programs for the West Area Health Education Center in Madisonville, and in her present position with BHM, she oversees six departments, including a regional medical school campus, a family medicine residency program, a doctoral nurse anesthetist program, and an area health education center. She also serves as Network Director for the Coalfield Regional Healthcare Network – a group of leaders from medical and educational organizations that include a regional medical center, a critical access hospital, two federally qualified health centers, an area health education center, a mental health provider, and the local health department and community college.