Stop playing it safe and pitch your ideas
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Stop playing it safe and pitch your ideas

May 23, 2023

We need more change agents in government—people who feel empowered to make suggestions, pitch ideas and push for change. Leaders often encourage innovation, but innovation doesn’t just happen because we want it to. The prerequisites for innovation—an important part of our Public Service Leadership Model—are cultivating the right mindset that lets go of fear and judgment, along with developing the skills to make an effective pitch.

The importance of mindset

First, let’s discuss the mindset required to feel confident to pitch your ideas. Effective change agents are not caught up in worry about themselves, their image or what’s in it for them. They embrace humility, defined by an anonymous author as “not thinking less of yourself, [but] thinking of yourself less.” That means focusing on how your idea will help achieve your agency’s mission—in other words, focusing on the purpose and the outcome of your idea, not the promotion it will earn you.

Letting go of the fear of failure frees up your brain to get creative and curious about your idea and the good it can do. When we are caught up in “survival brain,” we’re worried about fighting for our life and avoiding threats.

This normal, evolutionary reaction saved us in the early days of the human species. But these days, this instinct panics us about an “all caps” email or heightens our stress when the boss gives negative feedback. None of these normal stress reactions help us to pitch ideas and take risks. Instead, they keep us playing it safe.

To shift out of survival brain, we need to tap into a different part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex. This “learning brain” activates curiosity, openness and growth, enables higher-level thinking and enables us to perceive things less as threats and more as opportunities.

This process, of course, takes practice. Books on mindfulness and neuroscience explain how being present, by focusing on the five senses, enables you to quiet your inner judge or your modern-day “survival brain.” Once you’re focused and present, you can work on cultivating a feeling of empowerment so you’re ready to make the pitch.

Making the pitch

Even with the right mindset in place, you still need some skills and best practices to make your pitch effective. Here are some tips and questions for consideration:

  • Know your audience: Who is the decision-maker and what do they care most about? Most people start with their supervisor and work their way upward, as needed. Think carefully about the decision-makers and stakeholders invested in your issue and message it to them.
  • Do your homework: What has been tried in the past? Why did or didn’t it work? What were the lessons learned that you could incorporate this time? What resistance might you encounter? Having answers to these questions allows you to anticipate the common objection, “We tried that before, and it didn’t work.”
  • Be a leader, not a cheerleader: Leading change requires realism, not simply optimism. When delivering your pitch, highlight the positives and benefits without shying away from acknowledging the negatives, potential downsides or concerns. Not only will this prepare you for potential resistance from others, but it will also show that you are applying a critical and realistic lens to your idea, which gives you credibility.
  • Remember public speaking basics: Recall what you have learned about public speaking or briefing the boss, such as having a strong opening and closing, using both data and storytelling to appeal to different audiences, and being succinct and direct while having the background and supporting information at the ready if needed.

These tips are just trite advice if you do not cultivate the right mindset. You will be amazed at how a learning mindset will affect not just the idea that you’re excited to pitch, but also change the way you approach your work.

Without fear of failure inhibiting you, imagine what you can get done in public service!

To learn more, check out these resources:

  • “Growth Mindset” by Carol Dweck
  • “Positive Intelligence” by Shirzad Chamine
  • “Neuroleadership” by David Rock

Learn more about the offerings and resources from our Public Service Leadership Institute, a central source of programs, policies and perspectives related to leading in government.

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