Getting your ideas implemented: What a prospect (theory)!

From time to time, we all have good ideas that could help our organizations thrive. Assuming we want to share them, and assuming decision-makers want to listen, the obvious challenge is to convince them that the benefits outweigh the costs, the upside justifies the risk.

In a world of slim budgets, that’s never easy. But a dose of prospect theory can make this difficult prospect negotiable.

In short and in simple, prospect theory indicates that people act very differently when they think they’re losing versus gaining something. In particular, “losses loom larger than gains,” meaning that our pain from a $1 loss is greater than our pleasure from a $1 gain. A critical corollary: when we think we’re losing, we take risks to right the ship; when we think we’re gaining, we get conservative to protect our gains.

What does this have to do with selling ideas? Well, any idea can be described as a gain or a loss—it’s a matter of language (i.e., “framing”). And I would argue that most people (self included!) intuitively put the wrong frame on their ideas, unwittingly limiting their persuasiveness.

To see why, imagine you discovered a cheaper way to make your organization’s widgets. You’re confident your new method can save the organization $1 million a year, but it requires them to buy a $250,000 technology. The question is how you sell it to your superiors.

Well, if you’re like most people, you’d make sure to emphasize the benefits. So you’d say something like: “This will save us a million dollars a year!” Since you’re saying what your organization will gain, you’re describing the benefits with a gain frame.

A gain frame could work, but it’s probably not your best strategy. Why? Because, according to prospect theory, gains aren’t very motivating; people who feel like they’re gaining don’t feel particularly inclined to take risks, like shelling out $250,000. But what if you instead said: “If we don’t adopt this method, we will continue to lose $1 million a year.” Same information, and just as true, right? But prospect theory clearly suggests that the loss framing will strike a deeper chord, motivating the decision-maker to pay closer attention and accept more of the inherent risks. In sum, when talking about the benefits, our intuition suggests a gain frame, but a loss frame will probably work better.

And what about the costs? Assuming you caught a decision-maker’s attention with your loss-framed benefits, she’s sure to ask about the costs. Well, the intuitive and direct answer is obvious: “It’ll cost us $250,000.” Since you’re emphasizing the outflow of cash, you’re essentially using a loss frame to describe the costs.

A loss frame is alright; hopefully, she will rationally compare the small costs with the huge benefits and sign on the dotted line. But since you’ve put her in a loss frame, prospect theory suggests she could also experience amnesia about the benefits and start worrying about where in the world she can find a quarter million dollars. So what if you said something like this instead: “We would have to make an investment in a promising $250,000 technology.” Again, basically the same information, and just as true. But you’ve now portrayed the expense as a gain, which it really is if your projections are accurate. So, when talking about the costs, our intuition suggests a loss frame, but a gain frame will probably work better.

Does this all seem like a lesson in language games? Well, over three decades of research suggest that small words can have huge effects. So if your projections really indicate a major organizational opportunity, and if you really believe that you’ve gotten them right, then it’s worth your time to carefully consider the smallest turn of phrase.

Here’s to the prospect (theory) of getting your next idea implemented!


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