People cannot appreciate the value your idea offers if you fail to convey its relative advantage.

In this article, the innovation architect Doug Collins shares a simple, good example of telling the right story at the right time to the right audience. Save this one for your clip file.

Sweater weather

A couple weeks ago we had the heating system for the house checked for the winter season. Last winter where we live was brutal: Siberia descended upon the Ohio River Valley. Best be prepared for the next time.

On the appointed day the service man came. Flashlight in hand, he poked and prodded the furnace. Ascending the basement stairs, he pronounced judgment: all good for another year. He congratulated me on my good fortune. He handed me his invoice, collected my check, and departed for his next appointment.

The back of the invoice caught my attention. A picture of it appears here (figure 1).

Figure 1: the back of the invoice

In short, the back of the invoice conveys the idea that I should feel good about paying for quality service from a well-managed firm: “When that professional service technician knocks on your door, many costs have incurred just to get him there, ready to do the job.”

I like the story that the back of the invoice tells me for a couple reasons.

First, the story opens my mind as it opens my wallet—helps me appreciate all that goes into running a service business: one built to last, should I need to have them return one snowy morning in February.

Second, the story makes me feel good about my purchase—confident that I hired a quality provider. Buyer’s remorse is a real phenomenon. Ask anyone who has dealt with store returns. The back of this invoice minimizes the risk of it happening with the provider’s customers.

Third, the design—unintentionally or not—conveys an authentic, retro feel. Look and feel matter: tangible elements of the experience.

Implications for the practice of collaborative innovation

Do you take the advocacy of your idea as seriously as you take your idea, itself?

My homily to the back of the service provider’s invoice leads me to ask: How good are you at conveying your idea? Your concept? Do you take the advocacy of your idea as seriously as you take your idea, itself?

Can you depict your idea on a page? Or, does your idea get lost in a 20-slide PowerPoint that turns off your audience before the relative advantage it promises can turn them on? Do people have to wait for your laptop to boot before they can get to the point?

Can you depict your idea visually in a way that your audience can grasp with little to no effort? The back of the invoice did so for me. I like the “icons of service excellence enablement,” in all their retro glory.

Lastly, is the presentation of your idea, in whatever form it takes, timely? The invoice does so well. I reflected on its meaning at the time I was paying the bill and wondering whether I got good value for my money.

So often I find the presentation of ideas to be tone deaf, relative to whether the audience is ready and open to receive the message. One study, for example, found that the percentage of favorable rulings by judges drops from 65% to nearly zero within each decision session and returns abruptly to ≈65% after a food break. Are you, by comparison, showing up at your sponsor’s door step with a twenty-page PowerPoint at 11:30 a.m.—the tail end of their version of a decision session? If so, then you might find that your ideas have no chance of advancing, regardless of their relative advantage.

I find that breakfast meetings are the best time to socialize new ideas with people—and to get to know new people in the process. The distractions of the office do not nag at your companion and you. The day’s events have yet to overwhelm anyone’s ability to think expansively.

Your commonplace book

It’s interesting to me to see where the sources of inspiration lie, awaiting our discovery. In this case, an invoice from a heating & cooling service provider—no big thing, ostensibly—offers many, many lessons for the practitioner of collaborative innovation.

The author Steven Johnson describes the “commonplace book.” Our ancestors would use the commonplace book to capture their observations and insights as they presented themselves during the course of the day.

I think I will put this invoice in my version of the commonplace book for further inspiration. Helpful to see and reflect on how people convey and advocate for—sell—their ideas.

Do you keep a commonplace book? A clip sheet? I find mine to be helpful.

By Doug Collins

About the author

Doug Collins serves as an innovation architect. He helps organizations such as The Estee Lauder Companies, Fidelity Investments, Johnson & Johnson, Novo Nordisk, and The Procter & Gamble Company navigate the fuzzy front end of innovation.

Doug develops approaches, creates forums, and structures engagements whereby people can convene to explore the critical questions facing the enterprise. He helps people assign economic value to the ideas and to the collaboration that result.

As an author, Doug explores ways in which people can apply the practice of collaborative innovation in his series Innovation Architecture: A New Blueprint for Engaging People through Collaborative Innovation. His bi-weekly column appears in the publication Innovation Management. Doug serves on the board of advisors for Frost & Sullivan’s Global community of Growth, Innovation and Leadership (GIL).

Today, Doug consults with a range of clients as senior practice leader at innovation management company Mindjet. He helps clients realize their potential for leadership by applying the practice of collaborative innovation.

Photo: Four people raising cards by