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  • Writer's pictureDan Manning

Pitching Your Creative Idea to a Risk-Averse Decision Maker

You have a great idea that can really make an impact, but the gatekeeper standing between you and success seems petrified of failure. Read here to understand how we are all wired for the status quo and get 4 moves to improve your chances of success.

On January 18, 1905, Wilbur and Orville Wright pitched one of America’s all-time most innovative ideas to the United States government and were answered with a form letter rejecting their idea. The Ordnance Board of the War Department “had the honor of” regretfully informing them there was no interest until their machine could be brought into the stage of “practical operation.” 

After another exchange of letters, the Ordnance Board met and officially informed the Wright Brothers they would not take any further action until “a machine is produced which by actual operation is shown to be able to produce horizontal flight and to carry an operator.” Of course, the Wright Brothers had already met this minimum requirement nearly two years prior, and in the meantime, were routinely completing flights covering more than 10 miles.

If the Wright Brothers, pitching an idea that would revolutionized travel, trade, and war, were unable to effectively communicate their creative idea to the risk-averse War Department, what hope do we mortals have? 

While it is impossible to know if Wilbur and Orville would have succeeded with a different pitch, we can take advantage of some tools from psychology and neuroscience to give us a better chance.

Why is it so hard?

In order to understand how to overcome risk-aversion, it is important to understand the challenges you face. 

Humans have a hard-wired status quo bias. The bias to prefer the way “we have always done things” is sound evolutionary logic. If a certain tree always has the food I need, why would I spend my limited time going somewhere else. 

This logic persists today. There are millions of combinations of food choices you could make for lunch, but how similar is each day’s meal? A GQ reporter who spent a few days following Nick Saban, the enigmatic University of Alabama Head Coach, found nothing could deter him from his healthy breakfast of two Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies and a lunchtime meal of an iceberg salad with turkey and tomatoes. Saban prefers to eat the same meal every day because it saves him from having to make a decision.

We Expect the Worst In an intriguingly entitled research article (“Money, Kisses, and Electric Shocks: On the Affective Psychology of Risk”) University of Chicago researchers confirmed other studies finding decision makers overweight small probabilities and underweight large ones. In other words, when a creative idea has a 10% chance of failure and a 90% chance of success, your psyche adds some percentage to the failure rate and subtracts some percentage from the success rate. Even worse, people who are risk-averse tend to give additional weight to the worst outcomes.

Humans are cognitive misers. We have a well-appointed array of weapons to keep us from thinking too hard. In fact, I just used one of them. Metaphors allow you to say a little and mean a lot, and this is exactly what a lazy brain wants. You must be careful, however, because a poorly constructed metaphor can bring along unwanted baggage.

Other cognitive shortcuts are more directly connected to the person delivering the message. According to Forbes, it only takes 7 seconds to form a first impression. Trustworthiness calculations are made in less than a second but are perniciously persistent.

In a previous article on the neuroscience of creativity, I wrote about the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and its role in managing the gap between reality and expectations. This multi-functional part of the brain also plays an important role in decision making. 

When a decision maker is evaluating the creative option you are presenting, his ACC is calculating costs. As the potential costs of a decision increase, his brain moves more oxygen there. Researchers from Princeton found that as the cognitive effort required to make a decision increases, the ACC discounts the value of the benefits of the decision. In other words, our miserly brains subtract value from the “Pros” part of our Pro-Con list as the decision becomes harder to make. 

Risk-aversion is deeper, but less severe, than you think.  Why are so many decision makers risk averse when it comes to new ideas? I argue they are primarily concerned about the embarrassment or guilt they will feel if a plan fails. What we call risk-aversion is often negative surprise-aversion. 

Our judgment and credibility is based on our ability to assess the present and make reasonable predictions about the future. When we experience a negative surprise, we risk social criticism and negative assessments of our judgment.

At the same time, researchers found observers often overestimated decision makers’ risk-aversion. In fact, when they randomly divided a group in half for a decision-making task, the half who made decisions were judged as overly risk-averse by the other half. Nothing distinguished one group from the other except the flip of a coin, yet half of the room was suddenly seen as too timid.

In other studies, researchers found people tasked with making a decision usually considered more alternatives and more stakeholders than people who were merely evaluating the decision from the outside. This doesn’t mean the decision maker you are pitching isn’t risk averse, but it does mean they are probably not as risk averse as you think they are.

What can you do about it?

Some simple moves can overcome our miserly, timid brains and put the attention back on you and your creative idea. These moves, however, are no substitute for good, well-conceived concept. No psychology can replace the power of a well-communicated, good idea.

Move 1 - Capture Attention

Before you can persuade, you have to capture the decision maker’s attention. We all know about Pavlov’s dogs salivating at the ringing of a bell because of its association with food, but the dogs only salivated while their attention was on the bell. When their attention moved to something else, the association (and dog drool) dried up.

One way to attract and keep the decision maker drooling for more is through customization. As soon as you talk about how the idea impacts the decision maker you capture attention. Even simply using the decision maker’s name in the presentation will do it.

Do you remember the 2014 Share a Coke campaign where the soft drink company replaced their logo with first names? This campaign increased Coke’s sales worldwide for the first time in 10 years and was one of the most successful in the history of the company.  The personal appeal of the campaign attracted attention as people looked for their own names and the names of friends.

The campaign’s success was also impacted by another attention-grabber—difference. We all know what the Coca-Cola logo looks like. So, seeing it replaced by a name grabbed your attention in the drink aisle. What other grocery store product is literally calling your name? 

Different and distinctive doesn’t have to be over-the-top. When I was pitching ideas about how to reduce the threat of ISIS drones in Syria, I made an information paper resembling a community newsletter. It had headlines, pictures, and USA Today-style graphics. Because it wasn’t the Powerpoint presentation everyone expected, people read it.

Move 2 - Illuminate Positive Associations

The first positive association needs to be with you. No one is persuaded by a person they don’t like. “Killing the messenger” is a common phrase because it was "a thing". If you have to describe a problem your decision maker hasn’t recognized yet, it may make sense to have one person brief the problem while another presents the solution.

A sure way to create a positive association in the mind of the decision maker is to connect them personally to the solution. I mentioned one of these methods in an earlier post about generating creativity in a crisis—get the decision maker to draft a (or consent to your) problem statement. Not only does this small step make sense to ensure you are solving a problem the decision maker is experiencing, it makes them part of the process. Because we are wired to maintain consistency, it is difficult to choose the status quo after saying there is a problem that needs a solution.

At the other end of the process, engaging the decision maker to make choices about the solution also connects them in a personal way. One person I know in the advertising business called this the “hairy arm trick.” She would purposefully insert an unappealing image in a design. The client would say, “I like everything except for this hairy arm. If you remove it, I am onboard.” 

This technique comes close to being deceptive, but it doesn’t have to.  In your pitch, you can present two options and ask for a small decision before moving to a bigger one. By asking for a preference, the decision maker is forced to pay attention and becomes a part of the solution you will eventually present. 

Move 3 - Empathize with the Decision Maker

If you have not interacted with the decision maker before, some LinkedIn research or a biography could reveal opportunities for connection or latent biases. Finding out you both attended the same university or share an interest in the same charity would be powerful information used to demonstrate that you are a part of the decision maker’s trustworthy in-group.

Move 4 - Disarm Negative Surprise

This is your key move because it works directly on the neuro-biology and psychology of the decision maker. I’ve seen this move perfected by one of the most psychologically savvy people I know, a skill he learned in his former life as an interrogator in the US Army. 

Knowing the brain works hard to calculate costs of failure and potential for negative surprise, he pitches his idea in a clear, logical manner illuminating risks and rewards. Then, he closes with, “would you be willing to implement this idea on a trial basis to see if has value?”.

I can envision what happens inside the decision maker’s brain when he hears these words. The hyperactive ACC cools down. The costs of implementing the decision just plummeted as the decision became a temporary, rather than permanent one. It is cognitively easier to start a test-run than to make a sea change.

Second, the consequences (and therefore, risk) of surprise plummet as well. We expect experiments to go wrong, so there will be little surprise if this test fails. Because we have only implemented the idea as a test, a failure is not catastrophic. If the test fails, social consequences are disarmed…and may be reversed. Instead of hearing criticism for starting a project that failed, the decision maker is a hero for having the wisdom to have only implemented the idea on a trial basis.

Making the decision maker the hero in the story is always a good move. If you approach the creative pitch as an advisor rather than an all-knowing bolt from the blue, you are more likely to be persuasive. Advisors are loaded with positive associations; people who “know what’s best for you” are not.  When the decision maker is at the center of the story, risks become more clear and their probabilities more concrete. There are fewer unknown negative externalities to predict, calculate, and likely overweigh.  

As a creative-idea generator, the odds are stacked against you. They were also stacked against the Wright Brothers. They could have improved their pitch by demonstrating the new reality they created with live demonstrations or photos captured at Kitty Hawk. Instead, they were infected with their own risk-aversion. They were afraid someone would steal their invention, so they opted for secrecy and a low profile during the patent process.

Nevertheless, their creation became an innovation and revolutionized our world. Your idea may be the next great innovation, but the world will never know if you are unable to sell it to the gatekeepers who are needed to propel it to takeoff speed. With some knowledge of the challenge you face and these moves to tip the scales, your creative idea will have a better chance of getting airborne.

What is your best tip for pitching a nervous boss?

Dan Manning is the Founder of Firepower Concepts, LLC, a firm teaching applied creativity to help businesses and non-profits solve their toughest problems. Combining academic study with techniques refined over a career as a fighter pilot and warrior-diplomat, Dan unleashes the transforming power of creative thinking to do what could not be done before. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the opinions of the United States Air Force or the Department of Defense.

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