Selling your idea by never owning it

By Libby Stegger

How many times have you heard someone say, “Own it”? It’s motivational - go forth and spread your ideas! Be confident and powerful!

But leadership is not necessarily about projecting this kind of forceful power. At last month’s Emerging Leaders Network LunchSusan Campion reminded us of the importance of not owning our ideas. Campion, a consultant and change agent, spoke to the group about what it takes to get our ideas heard. Asking how to get my idea heard, she says, is actually the wrong question. It is too egocentric and closes us off to hearing and incorporating other ideas that could improve or trump our own. If we really want change, we need to innovate and listen.


Innovation theory encourages the creation of rough, rapid prototypes. One advantage of this approach is innovators develop less attachment to their ideas. Have you ever spent hours and hours perfecting a project only to have your boss tell you it wasn’t exactly what she had in mind, and could you change X, Y, and Z? Or maybe she told you to go back to the drawing board. Did you think: All that time wasted! And your project, your beautiful project! What would become of all your hard work?

Now, what if you’d only spent a fraction of the time and presented your boss with a rough draft or a sketch of what you had in mind? When she suggests changes, which she inevitably will, you won’t feel so crushed. And your final version will be better for it.

The more time we spend perfecting our ideas, the less willing we are to make changes down the road. We fail to hear criticism or listen to other ideas. Although starting as a change maker, the innovator who grows too attached to his ideas can swiftly become the bottleneck to effective progress. Campion encouraged the group to aim for an idea that is only 80 percent of the way there. Leave room for 20 percent change, tweaking, and incorporating others’ opinions. Perfection is the enemy of good.


You’ve created a rough prototype, a half-baked idea. Certainly it’s not ready for prime time. First, it must be improved. Second, it must be believed. The key to success in both areas is listening.

Your idea is brilliant. It’s perfect. It’s revolutionary. But chances are it has holes you can’t see. Listen sincerely to what others have to say about your ideas – and about their own. Their questions, criticisms, and add-ons will help form that additional 20 percent of the idea you need.

Furthermore, incorporating others’ suggestions will help everyone feel ownership, which strengthens their commitment to bringing about the change. Being a leader and a change maker means not just having ideas and changing minds but compelling others to do the same. Ideas catch fire when we engage others and when we share ownership.

Listening also helps build a network, and having a strong network is critical to enacting change. Julie Battilana and Tiziana Casciaro write in the Harvard Business Review, “We discovered some striking predictors of change agents’ success. The short story is that their personal networks—their relationships with colleagues—were critical.” As we listen, we learn about others and bring them into our circle. We build trust and partnership, which is critical to sustaining a strong network.

So, how can you get your ideas heard? Don’t look for the podium, Campion reminds us. Relinquish ownership. Or own it, but let your idea make new friends. A good idea is rarely crafted in isolation. Let it belong to the group, and bring that group along as fellow agents of change.

What success have you had with selling an idea?

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