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Selling Ideas to Upper Management

Effectively selling your ideas and those of your staff members to upper management is often what separates good lab managers from great ones. Failure to accomplish this is the main reason excellent ideas fall by the wayside. To sell ideas, you need to tap into the same creativity you and your staff used to conceive them.

John K. Borchardt

Dr. Borchardt is a consultant and technical writer. The author of the book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers,” he writes often on career-related subjects.

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A Well-Thought-Out Presentation is Step One

Effectively selling your ideas and those of your staff members to upper management is often what separates good lab managers from great ones. Great research and technical service ideas won’t be funded unless you convince your upper management that the ideas are feasible and will be profitable. Failure to accomplish this is the main reason excellent ideas fall by the wayside. To sell ideas, you need to tap into the same creativity you and your staff used to conceive them. How do you do this?

Beginning the process

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The idea sales process is the same for you as a lab manager whether you are taking your own idea or the idea of a staff member to funding authorities. It is also the same if you are a staff member yourself. Begin by documenting your idea. An entry in your laboratory notebook that is signed, dated and witnessed is the best way to do this. To share your idea with others, make sure it is documented in your laboratory notebook and in a dated “note to file.” This will protect the ownership of your idea should someone else try to take credit for it. Should the idea be an invention, your laboratory notebook entry and note to file will establish a date for its conception and help a patent attorney determine who is to be designated as inventor on the patent application.

Next, discuss the idea with your coworkers and supervisor to refine it. Veteran employees in particular may have valuable insights based on previous research projects in related areas. As you talk to others, try to generate related ideas that can modify your original proposal into a network of ideas. Then if one aspect of your idea doesn’t develop as desired, other aspects may still be feasible. If funding authorities decide not to fund one idea in your network, they may still approve others.

‘Preselling’ your idea

Informally talk to people to whom you are selling your idea. This “preselling” makes it easier to anticipate questions and concerns when you formally try to sell the idea. This approach is suited to inventions, customer service ideas and ideas for laboratory procedures. For example, a new manufacturing process may be used to produce additional products other than the one you initially proposed. A new product may have other markets besides the one you originally envisioned. Proposed new safety practices may have many applications, not just one.

So how can you generate these related ideas? Not rushing off to immediately publicize your idea and request approval for it may give you time to develop related ideas that can become part of your idea network. Those who read your note to file and those to whom you must sell your idea may have their own suggestions. Organizing a brainstorming session among your staff members may generate others.

Oral and written presentations

Depending on your company culture, people will sell their ideas to funding authorities using an oral presentation, a written report or both. These proposals should be clear and concise. Your audience or readers are busy people. If you don’t get to the point quickly, they may lose patience and “turn off.” To communicate with your audience and readers, use terms your funding sponsors will understand.

Follow the veteran salesperson’s advice to “sell benefits, not features.” Emphasize the financial benefits, greater safety, greater efficiency or higher morale associated with implementing your idea.

A representative outline for your oral or written report should require these five steps:

1. Summarize the idea.
2. Define the need for the idea. What problem will it solve?
3. Explain how the idea will make money for the company. Are there other benefits as well?
4. Define the resources needed. What will be needed to develop and commercialize the idea? How much money will it cost? How much time will it take?
5. Request a commitment. Following up on your presentation may be required to get a definitive, timely decision on whether it will be funded.

Let’s take a look at each of these steps.

Step 1. Summarize the idea.

Write a concise summary of your idea. This brief statement will help others to easily and accurately remember it. You can use this summary to open your written idea proposal. Also, practice saying it and time how long it takes you. It should be less than a minute and ideally no more than thirty seconds.

Step 2. Define the need for the idea.

There is no point to the idea unless it meets a need in the marketplace. The best way to demonstrate that there is indeed a need is to collect statements from potential customers. I sold perhaps my two best ideas to management this way. I was very familiar with the two industries concerned through previously developing products for them and providing technical service, so I was able to have credibility when approaching potential customers and generically describing what the product would do. In addition, potential customers often discuss these problems in trade journal articles and papers presented at trade conferences. I cited their oral and written comments when making my case to management, noting that my employer could earn substantial profits by initiating projects to solve these problems.

Getting customers to assign an economic value to solving their problems can be difficult, but even vague statements can be helpful. Of course, the greater the economic benefit to them of solving a problem, the higher the price your employer can charge for a solution to that problem.

In either your written or oral idea proposal, a summary of the need for the idea should immediately follow your description of the idea. Using this approach may require timely submission of patent applications, both in the U.S. and overseas, to prevent other firms from appropriating and commercializing your idea.

Step 3. Explain how the idea will make money for the company.

You need to understand and describe to your audience or readers how your idea will earn additional profits for your company. Usually, your problem solution must fit with the way your company currently manufactures and sells its products. For instance, if your employer is not a catalyst manufacturer or a polyethylene producer, an idea for an improved catalyst to make polyethylene more efficiently is not relevant to current business interests.

This is not to say that one can’t sell an idea that will drastically transform a company. However, the financial benefits of adopting the idea must be very large indeed. For instance, Monsanto was a large chemical company when the firm began to move into biotechnology. Robert Fraley, head of Monsanto’s plant molecular biology research team, persuaded executives that genetic engineering offered the best prospect of preserving the commercial life of Monsanto’s most important chemical product, Roundup herbicide, after its key patent expired in 2000.1 His strategy was to genetically modify seeds of major agricultural crops so they were highly resistant to Roundup. As a result, Roundup is highly selective in killing weeds without harming crops.

In 1982, Monsanto scientists were the first to genetically modify a plant cell. Five years later, Monsanto was field testing genetically modified crops. Through a series of acquisitions and spinoffs beginning in 1997, Monsanto shed most of its chemical operations and transformed itself into a biotechnology company. The firm now focuses on agriculturally related biotechnology, particularly genetically modified seeds for corn, cotton, wheat and other agricultural crops. The seeds are genetically modified to be resistant to Roundup glyphosate herbicides, which are still sold by Monsanto.

Monsanto laboratory greenhouse. Image courtesy of Monsanto Company.

Step 4. Define the resources needed.

Before deciding whether to approve your idea, executives will need to know what resources are needed to bring your idea to fruition. Key to your idea is whether your employer has the necessary resources to develop and commercialize it. Even if it does, other projects may be competing for the same resources. If it doesn’t have the necessary resources, all is not necessarily lost if you can propose a joint effort with another firm that does have the resources your employer lacks. However, in considering a joint effort, your firm cannot expect to retain 100 percent of the profits. What can it reasonably expect to retain? How can it keep control of the idea and be the entity that develops and commercializes it? These are questions that you as the presenter of the idea need to consider. While you may not wish to include all the details in your presentation or report, you should be prepared to answer questions on these subjects.

If your idea is expensive and broad in scope, you may need to hire a consulting firm to determine the potential market for the product. Alternatively, this may be something your firm’s marketing staff or even you may be able to do.

Step 5. Request a commitment.

Make it clear what the next step is that you are asking upper management to take. This includes the funds, staff, facilities, man-hours and time needed to implement the idea. Depending on the scope of your idea, you may need to hire new staff members, buy new lab equipment, set up a pilot plant, etc.

Final thoughts

You may find you need to sell your idea in stages. Be politely persistent until you get a concrete “yes” or “no” answer. Be prepared for disappointment. Sometimes “no” is the right answer.

However, don’t let your idea die due to inaction.

If management rejects your idea, keep it in your file. Your idea may be a good one that was just submitted at a poor time. Changes in business conditions or technological advances may make it worthwhile to resubmit your idea later. Understanding the reasons for the idea’s rejection will help you determine if and when to resubmit it. It can also help you when you submit other ideas.

Be sure you feel strongly about the ideas you do submit. If you are doubtful of an idea’s feasibility, that’s usually a signal that the idea has a major flaw.

Submitting many ideas from you and your staff does not mean more ideas will be approved. However, it does mean that the quality of the ideas developed into projects will be higher. So encourage your staff members to submit their ideas for new products and services.

Preparing staff members to do so can be an excellent mentoring opportunity for lab managers with successful track records of selling their own ideas to upper management. To prepare staff members to sell their ideas, coach them on how to do so. If you have more than one inexperienced staff member, you may wish to offer a short workshop on how to sell ideas based on this article. An additional way to help prepare them is to bring them to a meeting where you or other staff members will be presenting ideas to business managers.

Effective selling means that good ideas are implemented by you and your employer, not by your competition. This can only be good for both you and your employer.


1. Glover, Dominic. “Made by Monsanto: The Corporate Shaping of GM Crops as a Technology for the Poor,” Working Paper 11, www.steps-centre. org/PDFs/GM%20Crops%20web%20final_small.pdf (2008).