Category Archives: Working With Grownups

Pitch. Presentation. Proposal.

Getting people to say they’re interested in an idea is easy.
Getting people to commit to an idea is hard.

Let’s talk about the difference between a Pitch, a Presentation, and a Proposal.

First, some definitions:

So, let’s say you have the core of an idea. You haven’t really looked at it all that hard yet, but you really want to tell someone about it. You corner them in their cube or the elevator, and you fling the idea at them to see if it sticks. That’s a pitch. You’re effectively throwing the idea at them to get a basic reading on whether it’s worthwhile at all.

Next, suppose you’ve looked harder at your idea, understand a bunch of its shortcomings (and have come up with irresistibly clever answers for all of them), and you have some thoughts about what you’d need to make it a reality. You write up a small document (e.g. slides, a two-pager, etc.) and ask for 15-30 minutes with someone higher up to get a reading on it. That’s a presentation. You are placing an interesting idea out there in the world and showing people how it works, in the hopes of getting things moving.

Time passes and you’re even further into your idea. You’ve committed time to understanding the problem better, and you probably even revised it a few times when you realized you were violating the laws of physics. You write up a detailed document of some kind, have a bunch of backing data available on command, and are able to answer some pretty deep questions around the material, including why other people should care (i.e. give you resources to do something). That’s a proposal. You’ve refined your idea, understand what you’re actually asking for, and are quite literally proposing that they take action and commit resources to your idea.

With that in mind, what makes each of those unique?

The pitch requires the least commitment from you or your audience. You’ll get instant feedback, especially if you’re a decent listener. It’s quick and effective… just make sure you know what it’s effective for.

The presentation is the way you bootstrap yourself into getting the attention of interesting people. It’s where you’ll show you have just enough understanding of the idea to get a further conversation. It’s also where you’ll start to get the hard questions, which may or may not deal a mortal blow to your idea, no matter how well you cared for it.

The proposal is the only time you’re asking someone to take real action that could cost them money, time and/or their reputation, because you’ve shown them that you’ve spent your own time/money/reputation figuring out enough of it that you’re committed to its success. The other two might get interesting nods, but the proposal is where you can get legitimate answers about getting other people involved.

There are times and places for each of pitch/presentation/proposal.
The heartburn comes when you do one, and expect the results of another.
Here are a couple of examples:

Doing a proposal and expecting instant meaningful feedback. You’ve just dumped a ton of information in the lap of someone who’s probably used to seeing great ideas on a regular basis. You’re asking for something big. Getting someone to commit resources takes time; respect that.

Doing a presentation and expecting people to commit anything more than some extra time. You’ve worked on your idea a bit, but it hasn’t hit any really rough waves if you haven’t previously given people the forum to ask the hard questions. Having your friend say “I don’t see anything wrong with it” over a couple of beers is a pretty low bar to clear.

Doing a pitch, hearing a favorable grunt, and assuming that’s a green light. Everyone loves feeling accepted. Having someone approve the idea you thought of in the shower that morning is a great little feeling, but talk is cheap. Anyone can say something is a good idea if it’s not objectively horrible, and they won’t be affected by it. A nod of appreciation is not a commitment.

So, to review:

  • The pitch: Low development, quick turnaround, no commitment.
  • The presentation: Medium development, medium turnaround, nearly no commitment.
  • The proposal: High development, slow turnaround, possible commitment.

A note of caution: If you have good ideas on a regular basis and just keep pitching them without developing them, you’ll get known as having “the idea of the week”, and people will lose interest. If you don’t give your ideas any attention, why should they? A little bit of development goes a long way.

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Filed under Tech Life, Working With Grownups

You Must Try, and then You Must Ask

I like working with grownups.

Here’s an example:

When I was a wee little New Hire at my current employer, one of the things that came up a lot was the “15 minute rule.” That is, if you’re stuck on a problem, take a solid 15 minutes to bash your brain against it in whatever manner you see fit. However, if you still don’t have an answer after 15 minutes, you must ask someone. I shorten this down to “You must try, and then you must ask.” It’s a simply-worded rule, which works something like this:

  1. If you’ve hit the point of giving up, you have to push yourself for another 15 minutes. The pressure is now off. You know that in 15 minutes, you’ll be able to take what you found and talk to another person about it and get their help. For right now, all you have to do is step back and look at the whole problem from the top. Maybe you’ll find the solution that was sitting there all along. Maybe you’ll convince yourself it’s completely unsolvable. Whatever you end up doing, those next 15 minutes are where you look at the problem one more time.

  2. During those 15 minutes, you must document everything you’re doing so that you can tell someone else. So, what does “look at the problem one more time” mean? It means taking notes. Lots of them. I’m a big fan of using a paper notebook with an excruciatingly fine-point pen, because I don’t need to move windows out of the way to keep writing in it, and I can fit a lot of words on a single page. Use what you like, but keep writing. Write down all the steps, all the assumptions, everything you tried, and anything you can do to reproduce the problem. More likely than not, you’ve now probably figured out at least one other way to solve the problem, just by getting it out of your head and onto paper.

  3. After that, you must ask someone for help. Okay, you’ve decided you need help, and you’ve spent another 15 minutes looking at the problem again (and again (and again)), and you’ve documented your approach.

    Now, stop.
    Stop trying to solve the problem, if only for a moment.

    Call for help. Even if you think that you almost have it, stop. Even if you think that an incarnation of the wisdom of the masters is perched on your shoulder whispering the answer in your ear, stop. Write that email or walk over to the office/cube/etc. or cast the appropriate summoning spell, but make sure that someone else knows that you need help. Request assistance, state the problem, and show your work. You may not get help right away, but now you’ve employed at least one other brain in helping you, and now they have a great head-start, courtesy of you.

So, that’s the 15 Minute Rule in 3 easy steps.

Here’s why it’s important:

  1. Your paid hours are costing someone money. You can be in a Professional Services Organization, an internal IT organization, or an independent contractor, but it all works out to the same thing; someone is paying for your skills. While it may feel good to figure out the answer on your own, there’s no medal for wasting 3 hours worth of money on a problem that doesn’t merit that kind of time. In a sneaky way, this also helps you value your own time, if only by making you ask yourself “Is this problem worth this much of my time?”

  2. Your colleagues will help you because they’re playing by the same rules. This means they’re used to asking and listening to informed questions, and they’ll be expecting the same from their peers. Needless to say, use your common sense… find someone that isn’t heads-down in a problem of their own; no one likes to have their flow interrupted. That being said, your colleagues will know that if you come over to ask for help, you’ll already have taken time to look it over and documented your findings so they can help you figure out the problem faster or point you in the right direction. It’s possible you’ll end up Rubber Duck Debugging the problem, and the act of talking through the problem will help you solve it.

  3. Last but certainly not least, You have to interact with your colleagues because they have the answers you need. Building and maintaining an enterprise software platform (to choose something of appropriately fiendish complexity) is not a solo sport. Your colleagues have different ways of understanding problems and different ways of using the knowledge they have. This goes for many definitions of colleague and many definitions of knowledge.

This eventually turns into a virtuous cycle. People value each others’ time and their own, so they do their own homework before asking a question. In turn, people are more likely to answer questions because they know the person asking will give them the interesting part of the problem to solve.

Put another way: by explicitly taking enough time, everyone saves time.


Filed under Working With Grownups

The Buttermilk Problem

Sitting in a business school class on leadership, we were asked to count off into groups of three.

Each group got handed a cup with some buttermilk. Two people in the group had to convince the other one to drink it in the next 5 minutes.

After time was up, a quick poll showed that most of the groups convinced the person to drink the buttermilk. Of the three groups that didn’t, two of them said “their arguments weren’t convincing.”

When my group was asked, I replied “The win condition was not drinking the buttermilk, so I didn’t listen and kept saying ‘no’ until they gave up.”

During the ensuing “step into my office, because you’re being a space alien again” discussion with the professor, we pulled apart what I’d said. After much back and forth, we came to the following:

At the point that I decided “I win if I don’t drink the buttermilk”, I was no longer playing the game.

I had created, on the spot and with no one else knowing, a new game called “I need to tell my peers that I won, because that confirms my self-image of being clever.” That new game had only one rule: “Don’t drink the buttermilk,” which then carried the optimal strategy of “Don’t listen and just say ‘no’ until they give up.” QED.

This goes for the general discussion of ideas as well, and I’m not immune to slipping back into that mode of thinking. So, I ask a few questions of myself every now and then:

  1. Am I willing to be wrong or to “lose”?
  2. What changes if I’m wrong or I “lose”?
  3. How much of my life/self/work/etc. do I feel I have to re-evaluate if I’m wrong or I “lose”?

I’ve found that honest answers to those questions mean that the stakes are typically quite low…. and that has made it a lot easier to just, well, live.

In the past three years of working in a professional services role, I’ve learned how to tell when a customer is actually engaged and listening, or if they’re playing their own internal game of “Don’t drink the buttermilk.”

What does it look like when someone has started playing this game in their own head?
In short, they look bored and disengaged. If someone in front of you was saying words that were completely irrelevant to you and you couldn’t leave, you’d be awfully bored, too.

Psychology Today has a good article on how to know if you’re boring someone. A few of these are:

  1. Repeated, perfunctory responses (e.g. “Got it.”, “Uh huh.”). The less variation, the more boredom.
  2. Simple/simplistic questions (e.g. “Then what?”, “Really?”). See #1.
  3. Imbalance of talking time. Interested people take more airtime because they want to know more.

What if you notice that a person has disengaged like this?
If you don’t just want to walk out of the room, what can you do to continue or end the discussion gracefully?

  1. Address them by name. Use the name/honorific with which they introduced themselves. The processing of proper names is pretty deep down in human hardware, and it’ll break them out of the “bored” mindset, at least momentarily. Once you have their attention, ask them to contribute (e.g. “What do you want to know about the buttermilk?”). This will give you a chance to reset the conversation.
  2. Acknowledge the situation. You didn’t wake up thinking that you’d be a threat to someone’s self-worth, but there you are. They feel like they’re backed into a corner, and acknowledging your point means they’re a lesser person. Remove the pressure by lowering the stakes, possibly with humor. (e.g. “Yeah, I’m supposed to convince you to drink the buttermilk. You’re clearly not interested, though. Can we get agreement on there being buttermilk in front of you?”)
  3. If all else fails, go random. If they’re transparently not listening (i.e. they’re staring at their smartphone while saying ‘uh huh’ a lot.) say something completely unrelated to the subject. It could be just a change of topic, or something completely nonsensical (e.g. “spatula woodchipper empathetic buttermilk”). You’ll probably get their attention, but they’ll also probably feel embarrassed and mocked. It works, but you’re rolling the dice.
  4. If that fails, reschedule. Okay. Nothing has worked. They’re not listening. Bring the conversation to a natural close, and ask to reschedule for another time when they’re ready to talk. Being courteous rarely goes wrong.

In short: Self-worth is a complex phenomenon; pay attention and handle carefully.


Filed under Working With Grownups