Kill “good ideas” or be killed by them

Famous Apple’s mantra that in designing a product for every “YES” there are 1,000 “NOs” can apply to the way organisations manage their “ideas portfolio”. By idea I mean a new project or proposition, which requires involvement and buy-in from multiple people, and has an uncertain outcome, i.e. not a proven concept where success primarily depends on the quality of execution.

Over the past decade companies have done well empowering staff and facilitating ideation across all parts of organisation – just look at all the hackathons around. The new challenge is how not to drown in hundreds of zombie mini-initiatives and pet projects that impact productivity and distract resources from what’s important.

Interestingly it’s often our politeness and political correctness that stand in the way of innovation and create waste. We tend to label ideas “good” even when we don’t believe they have any merit, but don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. Proliferation of these “good ideas” can become a real problem – everybody is busy on “projects” that achieve nothing.

“Good ideas” from senior ranks have more chances of being implemented. But where these ideas get a go-ahead, staff often see them as fads and let them perish slowly as a forgotten pilot or a half-done initiative not even worth a post-implementation review. Despite the waste, these failed projects can be a weird source of satisfaction: the sceptics are happy because they knew it was a dud. The author still gets some sense of accomplishment and easily finds someone or something to blame. “Good ideas” keep flowing. The cycle goes on.

Ideas coming from junior staff don’t get as many chances. The authors are politely told that their idea is interesting and may need a bit more work. And they keep working on it. After a while it becomes apparent that it won’t ever get up, which can make staff disengaged and resentful – “everybody likes it, but the stupid company can’t get their act together”. The cycle goes on, until that person loses hope and stops bringing up ideas or moves on.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Strategically organisations experiencing these problems need to relentlessly focus on the few opportunities that have best chances of making a difference. Such focus may entail significant cultural adjustments, embedding which takes time and discipline.

Four aspects of corporate culture are particularly important in avoiding the “good idea” trap:

  • Culture of open communication and feedback is a must. If the company does not encourage constructive conversations – it has to accept waste. The other extreme is a culture of cynicism and criticism, which is even more destructive. The golden middle is when it’s a norm to have thorough fact-based debates and accept feedback with a “thank you” rather than “yes, but”. This feedback filter should tackle the first 990 out of 1,000 “good ideas”.
  • Culture of transparency and consistency in decision making that is based on merit, not hierarchy, is key to expectation management. If an idea is “great enough” to be seriously considered, understanding of the process and odds of it getting through will soften the blow for the other 9 out of 10 remaining ideas.
  • Culture of celebrating success and sharing credit for 1 in 1,000 idea that gets up. Not everybody will produce a billion-dollar idea, but anybody can take part in designing, refining and bringing it to life. Spreading the credit of success wide doesn’t cost anything, but has tremendous effect on engagement and creativity.
  • Last but not least, culture of letting “good ideas” go. Leaders must learn to kill their “good ideas” fast, leading teams by example into a brave new world where only 1 in 1,000 makes it. When a leader is getting polite feedback that their idea is “not technically or legally feasible, but with some work may be useful elsewhere”, a response should be to kill it and focus on feasible and impactful opportunities.

And the best place to start making a difference is… ourselves. Keeping an open mind to all feedback in pressure testing ideas is a key first step. If it’s not quite “1 in 1,000” let it go quickly, there are better things in life than pursuing our own unicorns. If it is – make it happen and generously share credit for success.

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