Becoming an Influencer: How to Build a Business Case
Lisa Pietrangeli, 36Software
YOU’VE GOT SKILLS. Mad skills. That’s why you have a job and a career and are respected in your field. You know what to write and which buttons to push and how to meet deadlines. As a technical communicator, you excel at making the complex simple and at adapting to new methods and tools. You seek them. You understand them. But are you successful in implementing them? Are you able to sell your ideas to your company? Do you know how to get the funding and headcount to make change happen?
Have You Ever Thought
- I know there is a better way to do this; or
- I saw a pretty impressive tool that I bet we could use to solve our specific challenges; or
- I know my company is considering some improvements. I wish I could give them my advice about what we need so something isn’t just handed to me.
Of course you have. We all have. Maybe even on a daily basis. The question is, how can you be more proactive and influence decisions that will help your own work environment, your team’s productivity, and your company’s bottom line?
Show and Tell
Attend conferences and webinars or read thought-inspiring discussions. Identify methods, tools, or ideas that you believe can benefit your company. Even if it doesn’t seem like it, your company is counting on you to bring new ideas to the table.
As an employer, I encourage my entire team (from directors to co-ops) to voice their ideas. Why? Because we’re all in this together. Your company relies on you, but sometimes it’s difficult to be heard. Depending on your company’s culture, you may or may not have obvious opportunities to contribute ideas. Even if you’ve never been directly asked, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be part of the conversation. Take the initiative. Start the conversation. Insert yourself into the development process. Become an influencer!
Build a Case and Be an Influencer
Yes, you are an influencer. You may not be perceived to be an influencer, but that’s about to change. Don’t wait for things to happen. Help yourself and your company by becoming the go-to person for industry knowledge.
This is a concept I’ve helped my customers and other technical communicators put into practice when they’re exploring a new solution. In doing so, I realized the importance of simplifying the approach in order to encourage action. I recommend breaking down the process of building a case into five steps. These are not radical ideas—quite the contrary. My intent is only to show you a simple path toward building a case, how to better speak the language of your company’s decision makers, and to recognize the benefits that your expertise will bring to your team.
Five Steps to Building Your Case
The goal is to start thinking about what goes into this type of initiative. Following these five steps will have you on your way to helping progress your team and your company.
Become the Expert and Share Knowledge
When it comes to collecting information, you’re a pro. You attend conferences, talks, webinars, and programs. How often do you take what you learn and share it with your company in a way that inspires action? It’s so important to use what you learn, and to really experience it. What better way to apply what you know than by developing and sharing your expertise and influencing change?
Hopefully your company is supportive and sends you to conferences and other events. Support your company and your own career by showing the benefits of what you learn. In anticipation of sharing your experience, schedule and organize an informational meeting with your team and managers to open up discussions. Here you will present your ideas and establish common ground.
- Establish consensus about challenges and goals.
- Ask a vendor or peer who is using a product you’re interested in to conduct a demonstration or run a brief workshop.
- Welcome outside expertise and experience so you, too, can expand what you understand about the topic.
- Introduce perceived benefits, not as fact but as opportunity.
- Demonstrate solutions in the context of agreed challenges.
- Demonstrate process improvements, time savings, money savings, and whatever else is important to your team.
An objective approach will make it easier to pull everyone together, so lead an open discussion and allow everyone to express their willingness to be part of the solutions.
Analyze Current State
This is your discovery phase. In this phase, everyone needs to agree on where you are now, what the challenges are, and admit what’s not working. You must also identify what is working. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, as they say. Most importantly, you need to be able to show examples of why something is or is not working and examples of the results and effects of each. These realizations and observations will drive your next steps, so give this some thought. In this exploratory phase, try to avoid language that’s too judgmental or negative. Examples of failure are a necessary part of business and progress, so they’re to be expected. Think of your current state in the current context; everyone is on board to solve problems, which is a good thing. Objectively admit what needs improvement and look ahead.
We’re not focusing on the how here, just the what. Now is the time to get buy-in and start prioritizing what to address.
It’s Also Important to Determine
- Is there data available to support your current state assessment?
- Are there particular goals that your company is working toward?
I guarantee there are both. Don’t find out that you’re in the dark about what your company needs outside of your immediate department. Talk to people and collect the validation that will help your cause.
Define Desired End State
This is the fun part! What do you want and why? Eventually this will be the basis of your overall improvement strategy. Be prepared to answer the following questions:
- If we have “this,” what will it buy us?
- How will it benefit the company?
- Why is it important to us?
It’s okay to have pie-in-the-sky ideas at first, but then come back down to earth and really define where you want to be in the next 6 months, 12 months, 2 years, 5 years. Identify potential opportunities to implement company- wide changes as well as changes within your immediate group. You may have a really clear picture of how your team contributes to the company’s bottom line, or you may not. For now, create something that is comprehensive enough to share without being overwhelming. You need to document a desired end state set in the context of what’s important to your team and how that impacts the company overall. Your company’s decision makers will consider both.
Remember that we’re not talking about how yet. First, establish expected and desired outcomes to improve identified challenges. Determine an overall strategic approach to address:
- Process improvements
- Team members working at optimal states
- Tools that will drive and support the desired outcome
Expectations should be continual, not point-in-time. Keep that in mind when defining successes.
Talking dollars and cents may not be your thing, but it’s a critical step in making things happen. Don’t panic! Calculating a project return on investment (ROI) doesn’t have to start out with more than a few basic data points. It also does not need to be spot-on accurate. It’s best to start with a specific, completed project that’s representative of a typical situation. Review the project with these things in mind:
- How many people are involved?
- What are the roles/resources required for the project?
- What are the individual salaries for specific roles/resources?
- What is the volume per person (percentage of time spent) on the specific project?
- What are the steps in the project that require resources?
- What are the time requirements for each step?
- What is the cost of production?
- What is the cost of delays?
There are a lot of basic ROI calculators available publically on the Web, so find one that has most of the data points you have access to. At this stage, estimates are fine. You want to be able to weigh existing processes and tools with estimated costs, savings, and return of new processes and/or tools. Your findings may reveal that roles need to shift or you may find that there’s a weak link in the process that you didn’t previously realize. Or you may identify an opportunity that you can take advantage of immediately while you are working toward longer-term goals. It’s easier than it sounds and it’s all actionable information.
This step is ongoing to both support and test your projections. Keep coming back to it, especially in conjunction with Step 5. Use smaller projects and timelines to set expectations from larger projects and I’m confident you’ll quickly figure out what data you need to measure in order to define a successful outcome.
Plan, Execute, and Measure
How will you know it’s working? That’s the question any decision maker and invested party will want to know the answer to. The effectiveness of the solution must be measurable in some capacity, likely even before it’s been implemented. Start with these concepts:
Establish a baseline. This comes out of your ROI calculation. Define a typical project and its cost, requirements, necessary resources, etc.
Identify a short-term project that will be the first to work with your newly approved tool and/or methods.
Out of the results of that short-term project, identify long-term projections; this includes identifying the relationship between the original project and future projects.
Clearly define what success will look like: Here is what we wanted to do. Here is how we did it. This is how we know it worked.
Maybe success means your company completes a project a month faster than is estimated. Or the solution reduced the cost of the first project by 25%. Determine how you will know if your improvements are really improvements and not just perceived as such.
Establish metrics that can be easily obtained in the future so you may continue to apply them to your team’s goals and desired end state. Some things are easier to measure than others.
You Need to Ask Yourself
- What drives your company?
- Is quality based on customer satisfaction?
- Could you simplify your review process?
- Could you lower translation costs?
- Could you accelerate launch dates?
There are always critical factors that outweigh others, so work with your company to figure out what those are and measure success against them.
What Should You End Up With?
You’re probably wondering what you should have at the end of these steps. In very simple, tactical terms, you will have developed an organized 5–10 page document as an assessment of these five steps; a simple, clear ROI calculator; and a brief presentation (PowerPoint or other) to help support your case. With these tools in place, you will get someone’s attention and show your initiative to be a thought leader. You will have the power to influence changes that will benefit your team and your entire company.
Acknowledge and share your expertise. Organize your ideas. Get buy-in from others. Define challenges and success. You’ll be on your way to a strategy that will propel your career and your company forward.