A young woman pitches an idea

Credit: iStock/Jacob Ammentorp Lund

With the New Year here, you resolve to contribute more to the creative project team at work. But just how do you do that? Professor Kimberly Elsbach of the University of California, Davis, offers insights on how to successfully pitch your ideas to your project leader.

An expert in organizational behavior at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management, she outlines how you’re most likely to win at least initial consideration for your idea.

Elsbach draws the tactics from a recently published study that, building on earlier work about both Hollywood pitches and toy car designers, took her inside a multinational food company. There, she interviewed researchers, scientists and engineers from the research and development division, observed creative team meetings, and later interviewed the project leaders.

Know your project lead

First, figure out who you’re pitching to. Creative workers — think those whose work involves creativity or innovative problem-solving in most any setting — generally identify in one of two ways, Elsbach said. Idealists view themselves as artistic, independent and unique in their creative approach; pragmatists see themselves as practical, collaborative and rational.

Affirm his or her identity

Your strategy should be to present your idea in a way that affirms the identity of your project lead. “They have a lot of their identity invested in the ideas,” Elsbach said. “They’re threatened with ideas that will change it,” she added. This means using different approaches for pitching ideas to pragmatists and idealists.

Work it out for the pragmatist

You’re much more likely to encounter pragmatists as project leaders. Elsbach said about 80 percent of those in the role are pragmatists because organizations value their problem-solving approach and drive to keep project timelines. From earlier research, she found pragmatists are more willing to consider ideas from others, especially if those ideas seemed to improve the feasibility of their projects.

Three things are key for them:

  • Present ideas with a practical approach to improving a pre-existing idea.
  • Make detailed suggestions that can be implemented quickly.
  • Invest passion in how you support your ideas.

Elsbach calls this a ”high-conviction approach.”

Soft sell the idealist

Idealists see the projects they are leading as a direct reflection of themselves. So for them, the approach should be opposite. Here you want to show appreciation for the idealist’s pre-existing vision and artistic approach and preserve his or her sense of ownership. In a dispassionate manner, offer general and vague suggestions with an open-ended timeline. Elsbach identifies this as a “low-conviction approach.”

Don’t be limited by your own identity

Elsbach emphasized that you don’t have to be limited by your own identity as a pragmatist or idealist in pitching your project leader. “The (self-identified) personal identities of the idea givers did not prevent them from using either a high- or low-conviction approach to idea giving,” she wrote.

Want to learn more? Check out Elsbach’s article “Giving ideas that won’t get rejected; how personal identity relates to idea-taking in creative collaboration,” published in Innovation: Organization and Management.