being right is not enough

In early 2010, I started a skunkworks project in IBM that ultimately failed. This left me quite disillusioned because I was so certain that the goal of the project was critical to the success of the business yet the project had failed so utterly. I asked Danny Sabbah (at the time the General Manager of Rational) for a chat and he gave me some advice that I haven’t forgotten. I don’t remember Danny’s exact words so I will paraphrase:

“Being right isn’t enough. There are a lot of smart people who never get things done because they don’t know how to persuade people that their idea is a good one and something that we should actually work on versus the other thousand things we might choose to work on instead. You have to learn how to sell your idea.”

Danny’s statement resonated because I realized I had been working under the implicit assumption that my ideas were good, and as people observed them they would recognize the goodness of the ideas, some unspecified good things would happen that would lead to project success. But this is actually overstating the situation. I really hadn’t done anything other than “just” trying to build good technology.

This realization led me to study how ideas spread, and this eventually led me back to a book I had purchased a long time ago, but had never actually read, called “Diffusions of Innovations (5th Ed.)” by Everett Rogers. Wikipedia has a pretty good summary of the theory. I would like to explore this theory in more detail in my journal later, but for the purposes of this entry I will simply observe that there is a whole science to spreading ideas and I was stumbling along in the dark not really understanding how to do that.

But the happy perspective on this situation is that Danny’s point resonated, I identified a massive gap in my personal approach to collaborative development, and I’ve been studying and applying the lessons to close the gap. But it’s an ongoing learning process and I’ll write more about it here as I learn. Some other good more recent books near this topic that I will hit in the weeks and months ahead are Kevin Kelly’s “What Technology Wants” and Steven Johnson’s “Where Good Ideas Come From“.

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11 Responses to being right is not enough

  1. James Thomas says:

    That quote reminded me of these blog posts by Reginald Braithwaite, concerning the non-technical skills most developers neglect that are vital to their careers.

  2. Right on. I realized this a few years ago; even demonstrations of working technology aren’t enough to convince some people. I ended up getting this from library, in hopes of learning how to convince people:

    Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini

    It’s a great read. But I never used any in practice, at work (intentionally, anyway). Probably time to read another book on the topic …

  3. John Ryding says:

    Since you’re getting into the “selling” of ideas, I recommend also looking for media about con artists, how magicians work, and/or social engineering. Although the overall goals are different in these categories, the same patterns emerge between them for a single goal: persuade the person to agree with your thoughts.

    I HIGHLY recommend you watch the BBC series called “The Real Hustle” (, it talks all about the biggest scams con artists are pulling and why they work. I don’t believe you can buy it on DVD, but it is well worth the torrent download.

    I would also recommend checking out the show Lie To Me, but that is more about reading people.

  4. Ferdy says:

    Wohoo, the art of selling yourself.

    Two years ago I was involved in a 360º feedback. It was an interesting exercise because I realized how my teammates saw me (my strengths and my weakness), instead of my own perception. But the most interesting point I discovered was an unexpected weakness: I was a bad seller of myself, no matter how well I perform as a manager or as an engineer or how good are my ideas. It was really interesting because I never thought that was an essential skill for the success of the projects I lead.

    Today, I’m still trying to figure out which is the best approach to improve my “selling” skills.

  5. Bill Higgins says:

    James / Pat / John: Thanks for the additional pointers.

    Pat: I’ve also read Influence. Like you, I use it more for defense against the dark arts rather than to help me practice them. 🙂

    Ferdy: Just to be clear, Danny and this journal entry are not about “selling yourself”, they are about “selling” an idea [1]. In fact, I believe selling yourself too explicitly could actually be harmful when trying to sell an idea, because you could distract people from the idea by making it “about you”. This is especially dangerous in cases where you are viewed as an outsider (often the case when introducing a new idea), since existing communities are often passively or actively hostile to outsiders promoting new ideas.

    Rogers talks about all of this in Diffusions of Innovations.


    [1] As I reread the journal entry, I see that the term “selling” could be problematic in certain situations, e.g. with scientists and engineers who have a somewhat negative view on “selling” as an unscientific and in some cases unscrupulous way to affect people’s behavior. However, it was perfect in the conversation with Danny since it concisely communicated the basic (meta) idea of spreading ideas. However, if I were speaking to (for instance) a group of engineers I would probably use a different term/analogy because of the concern of distracting.

  6. Pingback: diffusion of innovations and logical fallacies | Bill's Journal

  7. Ferdy says:

    I agree with you that we are talking about different things, but my opinion is that sometimes you can not dissociate the idea from the person. Lots of times the credibility and the importance of an idea has to do with the credibility of the person who “sells” that idea (credentials, past success projects, technical know how, ethics, …), and that credibility *sometimes* needs to be sold.

    As you stated in your post, “there is a whole science to spreading ideas” 🙂

  8. Bill Higgins says:

    Ferdy: Now I see what you’re getting at and it’s quite thought provoking. I will have to think about this more and perhaps write another journal entry on it. If you end up writing a longer post on this topic on your blog, I hope you will let me know.

  9. Tim Tutt says:

    You know it’s funny… I couldn’t have come across this post at a better time. I’ve been running into just this issue in the past week.

    It’s sad that technology doesn’t sell itself, but the fact of the matter is not everyone shares the same thought processes as technologists.

    A co-worker of mine and I were discussing the other day the need for engineers to really understand the business domain in which they work in order to really solve problems, rather than just taking requirements and specifications to build a system. In order to really sell ideas to a business, you have to fully understand their problemset and be embedded in it to sell it in the ways that the customer needs to hear it.

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