Inception is real. Here’s how to plant your ideas.
In the movie Inception, the characters debate whether it’s possible to plant ideas in people’s heads.
Can you make them think YOUR idea was THEIR idea to begin with? 🤔
LOL. Anyone who has ever worked in an office knows the answer is YES.
Inception is 80% of what “leadership without authority” is. Lao Tzu said it best: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”
All those times your manager agreed to your idea because they thought it was their idea? That was inception.
Now that we agree inception is real, be mindful of the ideas you’re planting. Why? Because the issues you shine attention on will influence what your audience thinks about. And ultimately, whether they agree to your idea.
What you spend time on gets aggrandized--which means you might accidentally turn a non-issue into an issue. When you act weird or focus too much on negatives, you create a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Oh god, they are going to say no. Yep, they said no.”
Don't give people reasons to say no to you. They can come up with their own reasons, fine. But make them do the thinking. In the meantime, focus on incepting ideas in the direction you want them to think.
Here’s how to incept positive ideas:
1. Remind them of the upside.
My last semester of senior year in college, I finished all my credits early and wanted to study abroad in Buenos Aires.
The only problem? The deadline was 6 months ago. #academictimelines
But despite the odds, I enrolled three weeks before the start date and was soon on my way Argentina. Bonus: I went in January, which is their summer, so I effectively skipped winter that year. Double win!
How did I do this?
I aligned incentives by reminding the program that they get a lot of upside from an additional student--with zero marginal cost. Translation: They can make more money and hit their numbers if they let me enroll.
I made it easy by doing the upfront work. They knew I was ready to submit everything the moment they said yes.
What if I had told a sob story? I could have given a dozen reasons why I missed the deadline. NO ONE CARES. A sob story focuses too much on me, me, me.
Instead of giving excuses, I focused on why they would benefit—and how easy it was to let me in.
Before: “This is late and the deadline was months ago, and this probably throws a wrench in your planning process… But can you still review my application?”
After: “If you have room and want an additional student to maximize the quarter, I’m ready to go. I can send the payment, paperwork, and logistics tonight.”
2. Take control of the frame. Proactively show why they benefit in the long-term.
Asking coworkers or channel partners to adopt a new process is a pain. Everyone knows there’s a learning curve, which means more work on their already full plates.. So how do you get them to say an enthusiastic yes?
You take control of the frame. You help them zoom out and take a longer view. “For sure, this new process will take a few more hours upfront. But it will you save dozens of hours EVERY WEEK from here on.”
People won’t know to think of the longer term--unless you remind them. Reminding them is a generous act. You acknowledge that yes, it will take longer in the short run. Hiding that would be dishonest and shady. But NOT mentioning the benefit is just as bad.
Instead of focusing on how much work it is now, give an accurate picture of both the costs and benefits.
Before: “This is a lot of extra work, but would you be able to do this?”
After: “It’s more work upfront, but will save you a ton of time every week. Knowing how busy you are, I thought you’d like this because you can now vet prospects without traveling on-site.”
3. Explain why your idea aligns with their goal.
There’s a great book by psychologist Robert Cialdini. The book is called Pre-suasion, and it’s about how the moments before you make a request are just as important as the request itself. Pre-selling an idea impacts how people receive it.
When you bring up reasons why someone should reject your work, you increase the chances these ideas are top of mind. That’s why it’s important to focus on the positive.
Instead of focusing on the negative (why you didn’t do a thing), focus on the positive (why you did a BETTER thing).
Before: “This doesn’t follow the instructions you wanted, but here is my write-up. Let me know if you want me to change it.”
After: “I deviated from the usual format because you said the priority was making a post that’s interesting and valuable for the reader. Take a look and let me know if you think it looks good.”
Notice a subtle but intentional choice: In the example above, I didn’t say, “Let me know if you want me to change it.”
You want them to think, “Yes this is good, let’s go with it.” End on a positive note as the last thing they read before making a decision.
Takeaway: The next time you make a request… Remind people of the reasons to say yes.