Influencing Automation Project Approvals

April 26, 2023
The digital transformation of industry is driving an unprecedented amount of change to production operations and requires the input of knowledgeable personnel at all levels. Here’s how to improve the chances that your idea gets implemented.

In addition to the challenges associated with researching and assessing new automation technologies to determine their value to your operation, a potentially more difficult task is getting leadership buy-in to support the purchase and implementation of these products as well as the process changes that will be required to make it a successful innovation.

While an abundance of advice exists on how to get executive buy-in for innovative ideas, one of the better presentations I’ve seen detailing how to do this effectively was delivered at the 2023 Industry of Things World event in San Diego by Darin Powell, global IT digital leader, transformation strategy and experimentation at Bayer Crop Science. Throughout his career at industrial companies such as Boeing, Monsanto and Bayer Crop Science in positions ranging from web design and programming to sales, domain architecture for business and supply chain systems, and digital transformation strategy, Powell said he has conceptualized, created, sold and implemented multiple enterprise-level innovations.

“In every industry I’ve worked, I’ve had to convince leadership to fund innovation,” Powell said. “Many innovators rely on experience [to get buy in for their ideas]; others use relationships. Most innovators use both. I have created a model that helps people do this.”

The key to Powell’s model is to understand that business leaders who can make or break your idea live in many worlds. This means they will have their own opinions, motivations and pain. Therefore, your idea must be presented in a way that addresses their issues. And the common denominator in business is value.

“You have to speak in terms of value to get leaders to do things outside their comfort zone,” he said.

Influence archetypes

Powell’s innovation influence model recognizes four business leader archetypes that need to be approached differently, because one single message will not influence them all. Those archetypes are:

  • The Firefighter. This person faces too much operational and high priority work with too few resources. Their key concerns are production pressure, resources and efficiency. “You have to convince this archetype that your idea will help at the operations level,” said Powell. “Focus on production and people and show how this will have low negative impacts during execution.”
  • The Guardian. This person focuses on disruptions that past innovative ideas have caused. “You have to convince guardians how this idea will be different, effective and beneficial,” he said. “Show them that you know the past and differentiate your idea for the future by visualizing change management, return on investment and success factors.”
  • The Explorer.This leader archetype describes someone who is aware of many innovations that can help the business. Therefore, you must convince them why your idea is the one to focus on by explaining how it will disrupt and transform the business through its own innovation as well as how it will open doors to further innovation. “Visualize the change and benefit to the organization for them,” Powell advised.
  • The Strategist. This person grasps the value of your idea but wonders if it can scale. It’s critical for this archetype to understand how your idea not only solves a specific issue, but also how it integrates with the enterprise vision and strategy through its ability to scale and change the company for the better.

If progress on the project becomes challenging, make certain the leaders know how the challenges are being addressed. The last thing you want to do is surprise a stakeholder with information that could have been shared earlier.

According to Powell, communicating effectively with each of these archetypes is based on the following three factors:

  • Relationship and understanding. The start of every effective communication involves understanding your innovation’s worth and your prospective partner’s motivations, said Powell. “Pay attention to the words the leader uses, the focus of their organization and the questions they ask. This will help determine which archetype they fit in.”
  • Qualification and messaging.It’s critical that you can personalize the what, why, how, value and cost descriptions of your idea to each leader depending on their archetype. “Always address the archetype’s expressed paint points and how this innovation will lessen them,” said Powell.
  • Commitment, execution and validation. The innovator’s job is not done once buy-in and commitment from key leaders has been achieved. “You must demonstrate the trust they are giving you is warranted by execution and validation of the value you have messaged to them,” Powell said. “It’s not just about telling them what they want to hear. Credibility is your currency. When you’ve achieved buy-in, you then have to deliver.”

Getting and maintaining commitment

A critical aspect of gaining leadership buy-in and support for your idea is to realize that these leaders are not just a “gate to get through,” said Powell. “You have to understand that the leaders you’re selling your idea to also have their reputations at stake with your idea.”

To achieve initial and ongoing support for your idea, Powell said to:

  • Be observant. Watch how participants in your presentation interact. Pay attention to what leaders say and do when they hesitate. They’re telling you what information they are looking for to be comfortable with buy in.
  • Be consistent. Credibility is the most important currency you have. Don’t overpromise, exaggerate benefits or downplay risks. “Small wins that undermine credibility become large defeats,” he cautioned.
  • Be persistent but don’t overreach. Remember the goal is to get the innovation to a proof of concept or pilot status to prove the innovation. Ask for advice and listen.
  • Be resilient. This means becoming comfortable with rejection. You have to understand that many—if not most—innovations do not get approved. “Innovations are not accepted for many reasons outside of your control,” Powell said. “Accept this and consider how altering your innovation may improve its chances for approval or if it’s better for you to move on to the next idea.”

As a final piece of advice to support his methodology of influencing leaders, Powell said to remember that leaders understand that not all innovations will succeed. That’s why, if progress on the project becomes challenging, “make certain the leaders know how the challenges are being addressed. The last thing you want to do is surprise a stakeholder with information that could have been shared earlier.”

About the Author

David Greenfield, editor in chief | Editor in Chief

David Greenfield joined Automation World in June 2011. Bringing a wealth of industry knowledge and media experience to his position, David’s contributions can be found in AW’s print and online editions and custom projects. Earlier in his career, David was Editorial Director of Design News at UBM Electronics, and prior to joining UBM, he was Editorial Director of Control Engineering at Reed Business Information, where he also worked on Manufacturing Business Technology as Publisher. 

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