Managers often are told their teams need to be more innovative, but sometimes the ideas a team proposes just, well, stink. Experts advise how leaders can kill bad ideas without demoralizing the team or impeding new ideas.
There’s nothing more fun or energizing than when a team is bouncing ideas back and forth, each proposal more creative or “out there” than the last.
Then, the manager moves in and puts the kibosh on an idea the team is really jazzed about. Suddenly, the air leaves the room and team members are staring at the manager like he or she is the stuffy parent who just put an end to a teenager’s really cool party in the basement.
While team members can’t leave in a huff and slam their bedroom door, they can withdraw mentally and emotionally. The result is a decline in innovative ideas or even a drop in productivity as team members silently seethe over their idea being scrapped.
But experts say there is a way that leaders can kill bad ideas while still keeping teams focused on innovation.
For example, Jonathan Bendor, professor of political economics and organizations at Stanford Graduate School of Business, suggests one solution is using a rubric, or scoring system. This way, a team’s ideas “are graded on various dimensions, such as technical merit and market potential,” he explains.
So instead of just saying “This is no good!” the rubrics help problem-solvers determine why they’re stuck and what they can do about it. “Probably the best thing about rubrics is that they shift the process away from egos and personalities, and more toward the nature of the problem itself,” he says.
Other experts echo Bendor’s advice about making sure team members understand that it’s nothing personal when ideas are killed. For example, leaders need to reinforce the message that only marketable ideas can move forward.
Jason Fried, co-founder of 37signals and co-author of “Rework,” recalls a time when his company was building an initial version of Highrise, a Web-based contact management tool.
“We kept saying yes. ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if…Yes! Oh, man, it should total do this….Yes!’” he says. “It was always yes, yes and more yes. Which meant that when it was finally complete, Highrise ended up sucking.”
That inability to say “no” was a mistake, he says, and the team finally admitted that what they had created wasn’t simple and didn’t make sense. They started over and the new version “was built with a heavy dose of ‘no,’” he says. “It turned out wonderfully.”
Tom Lin, co-founder and creative director of Demiurge Studios, says that an unproven idea is a “murder suspect” and shouldn’t be protected. “Put it on trial as soon as possible,” he advises.
He suggests, for example, that the idea not just be discussed, but the steps and requirements drawn out clearly and even – if possible – “get a rough version of an idea into playable form.”
“Change can cause unhappiness, but if complaints stop after a day, it’s safe to move on. If the whining continues, it’s time to sharpen the knife,” he says.
In addition, other people who have never seen the idea before can give their opinion, or trusted advisors who don’t have a stake in the project can give blunt feedback, he says.
Another ways to kill ideas without stifling innovation is to always have a portfolio of ideas, and then create a first, second and third priority, says Ram Charan, co-author of “The Game Changer: How You Can Drive Revenue and Profit Growth.”
Those priorities show you “the bottom has to go,” he says. “If you take one idea, it’s going to be almost impossible to kill.”
Further, leaders need to emphasize that killing ideas is key to innovation, because “the success rate of innovation is not going to be 100 percent,” Charan says. “If it’s 100 percent, you’re taking no risks.”
Fried of 37signals points out that it’s natural to want to say “yes” to ideas because “yes is the thing of dreams” and “yes feels really good.”
“The problem is that yes often results in massive costs that we don’t consider when we’re dreaming up the things we want to do. Yes doesn’t push back until it’s too late. If you already agreed to do all these things, then it’s that much more difficult to say no later on,” he says.