I was working for a startup in Silicon Valley recently and was responsible for delivering a solution to a Microsoft subsidiary. If the pilot implementation went off without a hitch, the promise was that the rollout would be expanded to an additional half-dozen Microsoft subsidiaries across the globe. The entire team was excited about the revenue opportunity, as well as global travel, but it all ended quickly when the CEO made a huge mistake. He pitched a half-million-dollar project to a “decision maker” who knew only one word: “No.”

As a development manager, you may find yourself in the position of pitching a project to senior management, other departments, or clients. Avoid having your project shot down before it even takes off. Follow these three steps to get your project on the right person’s radar and get that person to sign off:

  • Pitch it to the right person.
  • Pitch to the pain.
  • Play it safe.

Pitch to the right person
Ross Perot, the former CEO of EDS, used to say, “Never ask someone to say yes who can only say no.” Whatever your project or idea, there’s almost always a price tag associated with it, such as cash or human resources. To optimize your chances of success, you need to know all the costs. Once you have a firm grasp of this, decide who can sign off on it. The rule of thumb is this: The higher your price, the higher up you’ll find the person you must pitch to. Creating the opportunity to speak to the right person takes finesse and is beyond the scope of this article, but after you locate that person, be patient and wait for a suitable time to present your idea. As Einstein observed, “No one ever learned anything by talking.” So listen—and figure out what the person’s pain point is.

Pitch to the pain
The term “pain point” has become a cliché in the industry but not without good cause. When a manager is drowning in an inefficient development process, he or she may have little patience for suggestions on streamlining the accounting workflow. In The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, Stephen Covey asserts that we should “put first things first.” The sign-off person already knows what comes first. And before you approach that person, you should be familiar with what he or she considers his or her biggest pain point to be. Once you find the pain point, you will have no problem gaining and keeping your audience’s attention. Obviously, your project should make his or her life easier. If not, your suggestion will quickly be forgotten.

Play it safe
Once you’ve demonstrated how your project will address a pain point, your next task is to decide how best to allow the decision maker to take advantage of your project while assuming minimal risk. Offer some wiggle room so you don’t present an ultimatum. Especially in uncertain economic times, offer several safe alternatives if your suggestion dramatically changes the way things are done. For example, if your project affects end users across the company, you could start by implementing your suggestion at a small satellite office. Implementing system changes at smaller locations increases the probability of success, because you have an isolated ecosystem within which your project can be evaluated.

Also, make sure you pitch your project in manageable pieces. Many potentially successful projects have not been put into play because they were pitched as an all-or-nothing proposition. Intimidated managers, who would have liked to try the proposed solutions, were petrified by the thought of committing to them without trial runs.

Consider pitching your project as a test run. In the pilot project, you should reach for the low-hanging fruit. The concept of low-hanging fruit is a key element to success. When deciding on the scope of your pilot project, you should avoid massive overhauls of functionality and focus on small, frequently used parts of the existing systems that fail to provide satisfactory results. By targeting these small functional areas, you ensure a relatively short implementation cycle and reduced financial risk. This helps to boost confidence in the pilot project and ensure that the visibility remains high.

The pilot approach to gaining commitment is frequently successful because managers feel less exposed to disaster. Multiple sequential pilots can often become production systems without the need for huge decisions. Imagine yourself to be the CIO of a company—wouldn’t it be less stressful to get a project implemented one manageable and measurable piece at a time, rather than be overwhelmed by a project that threatens to disrupt your entire organization?

Many a worthwhile project has gotten the thumbs-down because it wasn’t pitched effectively. Before you delve into your rehearsed spiel on why your project demands the green light, make sure it hits the ears of the right person at the right time.