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How to scale organisational change?

Erik Ehasoo
May 14, 2020 · 8 min read

A common, yet tough question I have been asked during my creativity talk is how to sell your ideas to others. Here is my practical guide for leaders on how to sell your innovative ideas — using knowledge creation theory and the illustration of computer interaction along the way.

Getting your idea across to another person is hard work. Bringing a software parallel, human brains are working on vastly different (programming) languages. Even if two people look the same and speak the same language, their brain and thinking is different. Like two websites can look the same (front-end) but still have a very different architecture (back-end) behind the scenes.

Often, we share our ingenious idea to another person, and it sounds so logical to us but then has no effect on the other person’s understanding. As in software, if you throw a random piece of C programming language to your website code console, nothing (good) happens. So how to solve this?

The simple answer is — you cannot. You are not able to change your brain’s programming language and its output. Idea transfer between two persons is only possible with mutual cooperation and interest. The key for another person to accept and implement a new idea (coding it in her brain) lies only on herself.

Unfortunately, humans do not have API gateways (synchronized information connections) that we could use to automatically transfer data from one brain to another in a meaningful way. Over time, however, we do build some basic (unwritten) API documentation with our closest partners (business partner, significant other etc) that makes the communication a little easier, but certainly does not make it automatic (remember that time you had an argument with your partner over who’s turn it is to do the chores?).

So again, idea transfer can only work with mutual cooperation — the other person has to be interested and open to the idea, she has to take an active role to decode your idea and then program it in her brain.

It is impossible to transfer complicated ideas to a large audience quickly

As an example, my brain works on a radically different programming language and architecture than my business partner’s brain. It is like C++ vs CSS, it is that different. Although we speak the same language (in front-end), my new ideas usually go directly to his Trash folder the first time I tell them. But over the years we have built enough trust in each other that we know — when the other person starts to speak rubbish, he probably has something in his mind.

So now, the process of decoding and reprogramming the idea from one brain to another starts through interactive questions: “What exactly do you mean when you say….”. The other side starts throwing out questions (queries) from his operating system in his programming language. Through getting answers to his questions, the decoding-reprogramming process happens until eventually the sessions (that might take hours or a day depending on the complexity of the idea) ends with “OK, I think I get what you’re saying.”

On the giving end, communicating ideas to other people, you also need to be open to repetition and if possible, repeating in a way that is a little bit different than the last time, as you can never know what words and approaches resonate with the other person.

It is a time consuming and tough process, but it is really the only way to get complex ideas over to another brain if you do not have a remarkably similar operating system.

Ideas to Large Audience

It is impossible to transfer complicated ideas to a large audience quickly. The one exception is when you throw out your idea to a very large audience, say thousands of people globally (via the Internet), then you will get dozens of people who get it, who think so similarly to you that they get it right away. The rest of the people will not.

But what do you do if you want to get the complex idea across a large audience and you need the majority of them to understand it? For example, you need to communicate your complex new vision to your thousand employees. There are two ways (that ideally should both be used in parallel):

1. With time and hard work, you can start by making it simple and build on that. Here is where public speaking, writing and persuasion skills come in handy. You need to work on your ideas extensively to bring out the most important, yet simple ideas that your core vision is based on. You get feedback and iterate. Then you repeat the guiding principles over and over and gradually build on those baseline ideas to add new perspectives. The whole process can easily take years.

2. The other option is to communicate through a network effect — to get the idea to a few people who would then communicate it to the next and so on. Usually, companies have the chain of command for this. What you need to do is to take time to try to explain the idea to a few of your leaders who know you already and will understand you better. But merely explaining is not enough, the process should be much more interactive (perhaps a workshop) where they can actively ask and figure out answers, discover the idea themselves. Where they can first decode the idea and then program it in their own programming language to their own operating system (the brain).

You also need to understand that everyone needs different methods and different timeframe — information transmission method that works for one, does not often work for others. It takes a different amount of time for different people to complete the process (while the process will never be quite complete). From there on, if they get it, they can continue to do the same for their team and hopefully, after some time, everyone has the idea coded in their own brain.

Idea transfer between two persons is only possible with mutual cooperation and interest

Neither of these methods is particularly quick as there are no quick methods to transfer complicated ideas.

Additionally, idea transfer is almost never ideal — complex ideas can not be reprogrammed to other people identically, there will always be some information loss. On the other hand, this also offers opportunities for new ideas creation or knowledge creation.

The Theory of Knowledge Creation

Considered to be the father of organisational knowledge creation theory, Japanese professor emeritus Ikujiro Nonaka distinguishes two types of knowledge — tacit and explicit knowledge. Explicit is all the knowledge that we can articulate and present — data, reports, presentations etc. However, the larger part and more important is the tacit knowledge — the information that people have in their heads, the information that they might not even be able to articulate, the experience. Nonaka argues that most Western companies highly underappreciate the tacit knowledge, focusing largely and primarily on explicit knowledge creation.

Nonaka offers some practical insights on how knowledge transfer and creation happens in an organisation. Knowledge is created through constant interaction (a spiral) between tacit and explicit knowledge — evolving from tacit to tacit, from tacit to explicit, from explicit to explicit and from explicit to tacit: *

From Tacit to Tacit (Socialization)

Like apprentice learning from the master, during socialization, tacit knowledge is directly transferred through observation, imitation, and practice when it becomes part of one’s own tacit knowledge base.

But on its own, socialization is a rather limited form of knowledge creation. True, the apprentice learns the master’s skills. But neither the apprentice nor the master gain any systematic insight into their craft knowledge (the theory). Because their knowledge never becomes explicit, it cannot easily be leveraged by the organization as a whole.

From Tacit to Explicit (Externalization)

Once the foundation of the tacit knowledge is articulated it is converted into explicit knowledge through guidelines, manuals, and tutorials. These can then be shared with the rest of the organisation and to a wider audience.

An example might be the comptroller who, instead of merely compiling a conventional financial plan for his company, develops an innovative new approach to budgetary control based on his own tacit knowledge developed over years in the job.

From Explicit to Explicit (Combination)

It is common to also combine discrete pieces of explicit knowledge into a new whole. For example, when a comptroller of a company collects information from throughout the organization and puts it together in a financial report, that report is new knowledge in the sense that it synthesizes information from many different sources. But this combination does not really extend the company’s existing knowledge base either.

From Explicit to Tacit (Internalization)

As new explicit knowledge is shared throughout an organization, other employees begin to internalize it — that is, they use it to broaden, extend, and reframe their own tacit knowledge.

An example of comptroller’s proposal causes a revision of the company’s financial control system. Other employees use the innovation and eventually come to take it for granted as part of the background of tools and resources necessary to do their jobs.

See also: Join the discussion in Innovation Leaders group on Facebook

While we are well aware of explicit knowledge, it is the tacit knowledge creation (socialization) and the interaction between the two methods (externalization and internalization) that is not given enough emphasis in strategic communication management while they are as important or even more important as conventional communication methods.

For effective idea transfer, knowledge creation, and innovation to happen, we need to put more effort into strategic communication and knowledge management. It is not enough to share your ideas — you need to take time and effort to explain your ideas through socialization (after-hour social events with colleagues as an example), externalization (presentations and guidelines), combination (reports and analyses) and internalization (giving the time and tools for people to internalize new knowledge). By the end of this process, you will not only manage to get your idea across, but also create new information, creative ideas, and fresh innovation along the way.

* The Knowledge-Creating Company

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Innovation Management

Innovation Management, Trends and Future

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