Do you have great ideas to contribute but struggle to get them seriously considered at work? Here are four potential reasons with a process to figure out why your voice isn’t being heard.

Nothing personal—it’s about the ideas.

  • Good ideas. Lack of resources. Your ideas are great but the organization doesn’t have incremental resources to test or implement new ideas.
  • Bad ideas. Your ideas are generally impractical or off-strategy. They’re being ignored because they should be ignored.
  • Nice ideas. The ideas are good but not great. No organization has capacity to do all of the “nice to dos.”

It’s personal—work on you first, the ideas second.

  • Low personal credibility. You have a track record of making implausible ideas, or have had personal failures that have decreased confidence in your abilities in general.
  • Lack of technical/strategic skill. You don’t have a profound understanding of the strategic needs and direction of the organization, so your ideas are off target.
  • Communication skills. Your ideas have merit, but the way you communicate them (orally or written) undermines the merit of the ideas.
  • Hobbyhorses. You’re proposing ideas that are interesting to you, but not relevant to others.
  • Half baked. You haven’t put enough thought into developing the idea for others to take it seriously. There’s a big difference between saying, “Let’s make a new MP3 player!” and developing a prototype of an iPod. You may need to put more work into fleshing out your concept before others will see its merit. Most organizations don’t need more ideas, they need more leaders—people who will champion an idea through successful implementation. If you’re hoping to simply “ideate”—or toss out gems and have others do the work, you are likely to remain disappointed.

It’s political—you lack understanding of how to get a decision made in your organization—who the power players are and how to gain their support.

It’s process—there are channels through which you need to move in your organization to advance ideas. Your strategy has been to “ideate” only, but you haven’t done the dog work of filling out forms, attending meetings, gaining approvals, etc. It could also be that you have such a stifling bureaucracy that no ideas will survive birth. If that’s the case, you may need to raise that issue rather than continuing to toss pebbles at the brick wall.

There are dozens of other possibilities, but I hope these stimulate possibilities for reflection. So, how can you know not just what might be going on, but what is going on? I have two suggestions to help you learn how to exert great influence in your specific case:

  • Find positive deviants. Identify cases in your organization that contradict your experience. Look for examples where someone proposed a similarly bold idea as yours—but in this case, it was picked up, developed, and implemented. In as ego-less a way as possible, compare your case to this one. What was different about this idea, this person, the political process, or the bureaucratic process that made it work? Using any insights you gain, decide how you will tweak your approach in the future.
  • Find honest friends. In addition to self-reflection, you can ask others to give you honest feedback. This is tough to get. Most people will take the easy way out and say, “Your ideas are great, people are just too busy,” when in fact part of the story is that your ideas haven’t been that great or you lack personal credibility. If you want them to be honest, you need to make it entirely clear that it is safe for them to be so. One way to do this would be to:
  • Define the problem. Give them examples of the last few ideas you’ve pitched that fell on deaf ears. Give a contrasting example of a “positive deviant.”
  • Make it safe. Tell them you have no ego in this and that your sole intention is to gain influence. You desperately need their help. The more sensitive their feedback is, the more actionable it will be for you!
  • Prime the pump. Give them examples of the kinds of things you think might be going on (for example, use the list I gave you above). Ask them to ponder over the three to five reasons on that list as to why your ideas are ignored.
  • Give them time. Don’t demand an immediate response. Ask them to give it some thought then get together with them to debrief.

If the capacity to innovate is an important value for you, you need to solve this puzzle to feel fully engaged in your work. Get feedback. Examine all the possibilities. Be patient as you develop greater skill at influencing your thriving and growing organization. Influence isn’t easy, but it’s worth the effort.