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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Yet Another Good Idea at the Time

A year after he retired from a long career in public relations, I asked my former boss and long-time friend what was occupying his days. He replied that he was mostly saying no to good ideas at the time. In his work over the years, he said, he had devoted too much too often to what seemed like worthwhile proposals that later proved worthless.

Now, in retirement, if he was complimented and enthused by, for example, the church music director telling him that he had vocal talent and inviting him to join the choir, he would say simply, kindly, and quickly, thank you but no thank you. He was not withdrawing into retirement, just being highly selective with the one, somewhat controllable and yet diminishing resource he had: time.

Can you identify and commiserate with my friend? You can:
  • if you are a victim of ideas-gone-wild that failed to produce enough value, say, for a corporate communication department to withstand budget cuts and layoffs, including maybe your layoff.
  • if you lost a part of your life and savings with a start-up business led by an inspiring, idea-twirling, self-proclaimed entrepreneur. And he was your friend, at least he was prior to the crash -- your crash, that is, not his.
  • if you have looked around your overstuffed office at the stacks of start-and-stop projects initiated by you or clients that once looked so promising but now look like so many wasted trees.
How do we let ideas get us into such messes? What causes us to say yes when we should say no to seemingly good ideas? How do we stay open-minded and adventurous and yet pragmatic and not stupid?

I’ll jump in with three observations and five thoughts to help you launch your own Wasteful Idea Prevention Program, which, I hope, will not be just another good idea at the time.

3 Observations

1 Affect vs. effect
The mess starts when we open the door of apparent opportunity just slightly because we don’t want to offend the idea-generator. He or she might be:
  • a vice president, to whom saying no would be risky;
  • a reliable consultant-friend, to whom saying no would be awkward;
  • the new hire with a track record of accomplishments from her previous company, to whom saying no would contradict what you “promised” in your verbal job offer.
Not to entertain their suggestions would make you appear uncooperative, overly cautious, and – good heavens! – maybe even a late adopter.

But then, here’s what happens:
  • The door of opportunity has opened enough for you to slip in half-way. You realize that, though the idea doesn’t feel quite right, everyone around you is enthused, especially younger staff members, and you don’t want to appear like an old man in a sea of zealots. Besides, you tell yourself, you cannot argue definitively that the idea won’t work. When you try to speak your voice of reason, logic falters.
  • You’re now in the room. The group is pressing, “C’mon. Let’s at least try it.” You don’t know how to respond. To suggest looking at the budget sounds limp. How much could trying cost? Not to support giving it a try would look like you’re stuck on the tried and true. You give in. The door closes. You’re committed.
What I just described is the evolution of affect – that is, emotions conjured up by the idea and that require some kind of resolution. Being affected is natural and you shouldn’t be apologetic. Simply know that emotions are transient. Only when they extend into lasting passion, and passion into long-term commitment and follow-through, do the initial emotions have impact. Affect must become effect.

2 Default vs. Decisiveness
Let’s assume that you are the boss and have relented to letting someone’s idea move to the next step. What seemed like a good idea at the time now breaths, walks, and requests time and a little spending money. You trick yourself into thinking the idea is still exploratory, and consequently default to one of two delay tactics: committee or report.
  1. Form a committee comprising the idea-initiator as leader, a couple of younger enthusiasts, and a trusted departmentalist. The group is likely to have the next meeting at a bar, ferret out a few other likely supporters in the organization -- perhaps an executive -- and come back at you with a sizable project scope, a hefty budget, and a recommended advisory committee. You feel the heat of all the Klieg lights on you.
  2. Request a report. This could doom the idea because few know how to convert enthusiasm into rationalism. Yet rationalism is not always the best model for success, some creative types might credibly contend. The report writers could load up with anecdotal support and media clippings on trends. How does one argue against the loosey-goosey?
The alternative to delay is to decide immediately. Either:
  • Kill the idea, take your lumps, and save the organization time-consuming, expensive make-work, or
  • Give the idea a fighting chance to survive or die on its own.
You can do that by assigning follow-up to the most open-minded, productive member of the staff who has no time to take it on.Tell him or her to shake down the concept. That could mean going it alone or forming a skunk-works team. He has only four weeks to give it a thumbs up or down and to present his recommendation convincingly to the group. And the assignment has to be done in addition to his regular chores.

Guaranteed, if you choose the right person, he or she will tell you if the idea was worth his sacrificial time and, consequently, should warrant the organization’s limited resources.

3 The Grandstander, the Hypothesizer, and the Nerd
Turn now from being trapped by an idea to cultivating an environment of innovation. What are the sources of fresh ideas that can produce organizational value? Actually, the question is who can produce organizational value? Consider three sources: the grandstander, the hypothesizer, and the nerd.
    The grandstander is a bit off-putting. He’s better on delivery in a meeting than delivery of results and a bit scornful of laggards, but he’s smart, worldly, and a category-changer. That’s his value: he makes you think against your will. Listen up, but don’t assign him to follow up, and know that when the dust he kicks up settles, a doable idea could appear, though it’s more likely to be an offshoot idea from someone else, someone who can and will execute.

    The hypothesizer thinks that the way things are should not necessarily be the way they ought to be. She is unsettled and unsettling. She is motivated by ideas that have zest, stickiness, and common-sense. When she presents her thoughts to a group, she looks for those colleagues who will like her concept but challenge it, ask rhetorical questions, raise “what ifs,” and stretch it into interesting shapes. Make sure you always have a hypothesizer on staff.

    The nerd appears innocent enough, but he’s exceptionally uncanny when it comes to what will work and what won’t. He loves new technology but is skeptical of fads that purport to introduce next-generation thinking. Consequently, when he formulates an idea, it’s well researched, checked out with online buddies, and tested out on his own time. He prefers to present the idea one-on-one, usually to the boss, who will take time to understand and not be dismissive of his quirkiness.
Having disassembled the ideation process, here are some final thoughts on reassembling it more effectively.

5 Thoughts
  1. Again, consider the source of the idea. If he or she has generated value from previous initiatives or saved the organization time and aggravation, don’t hesitate to support her latest proposal.
  2. Know that all ideas require time that no one seems to have. Taking on something new will require dropping something old or giving up time with family and friends.
  3. Write the projected results of your good idea as an actual accomplishment on the evolving draft of your year-end report and on your resume-in-progress. If the results look achievable and impressive, give the idea a try.
  4. If you understand the definition of risk as having no chance of success -- well, maybe a very slight chance -- then you will have a realistic view of when an idea will work and when it won’t.
  5. If the idea looks like a solo flight, assume that success is likely to launch the individual into his or her next job while the rest of you in the support group will be left behind. Are you okay with that?

Richard Skaare 01.29.09


Seth Simonds said...

Giving the project to the person with the least amount of free time is a really key concept I'd love to see used more often.

A busy person with no time for a project will view that project with the same eyes used by the person who came up with the idea when they've grown tired of it. If it still seems like a good idea, it's probably a winner.

I like your style, Richard. Every time I read one of your posts, I'm forced to think.

Thank you!

Michael Benidt said...

I'll speak up for the value of the worthless project, misguided quest and failed quest. Seems to me that all learning is beneficial - and that we sometimes learn more from failed projects (yes, even in business) than we do from success.

In much the same way that a cab driver or plumber can serve just as much as a CEO or concert pianist, projects that test us through failure can be as beneficial as the successful ones.

As they say, "you had me from hello" - I knew I was on a different track from you when I really, really wished your friend had said "yes" to his church music director and pursued his vocal talent.

What a wonderful essay you have written, though. And I agree with Seth - it forced me to think. Rare these days on the Internet. Thanks.