Apache Lucene EuroCon - May 18-21
How to Brainstorm New Ideas

How To Kill Good Ideas

This past week I was in a couple of different strategic planning meetings.  Some sessions were noticeably more effective than others in encouraging creative ideas.  I started to wonder why that is and came up with the top ways to kill new ideas. If you see these tenets taking hold in your organization, then you need to change things up to get people thinking more radically. 

  1. Every idea must be perfect
    The enemy of good is perfect.  If you aim for perfection you'll probably never get out of the starting gate.  By making something good (or even "good enough"), you can get it to market and improve it.  As Philippe Kahn used to say at Borland in the 1980's "Shipping is a feature."  In other words, until you get to market, you haven't done anything.  Good ideas that get implemented can be improved.  Great ideas that never get out don't amount to anything.  No idea is ever perfect, but taking risk is better than doing nothing.  If you're not making some mistakes, you're probably not taking enough risk. Better to create a culture that encourages risk taking and rewards new ideas than to become so afraid that you never try anything.
       
  2. Manage by concensus
    If you've got radical ideas it's pretty much guaranteed that you won't get concensus.  Heck, if it doesn't get someone's dander up, it probably isn't radical enough.  If you try to get everyone to agree, you'll probably compromise so much that the value of the idea is lost.  Forget concensus.  Be brave and be prepared that there will be detractors.  There will be people who object to new ideas for lots of reasons.  Maybe it threatens their power structure, or they are jealous that they didn't think of it.  People can get very complacent with the status quo and change makes people nervous. But don't try to manage towards concensus or you'll find inertia holds you back.
     
  3. We've done it before and it didn't work
    While it's good to learn from the past, it's easy to become a prisoner of it.  Whenever someone complains that something has been tried before, try to think if there's something different today.  Maybe there can be a variation of an old idea, or perhaps a different execution plan. Or perhaps the market has changed.  But instead of criticizing an idea as being old, figure out a way to strengthen the idea. 
     
  4. No one has been successful doing it before
    This is the opposite of item 3 above.  If no one has done it, it doesn't mean that it won't work.  Maybe no one has been bold enough.  Or maybe no one thought of it yet.  If you want to get out on the bleeding edge, then you need to try things out before it's common knowledge.  How many people do you think told the founders of SugarCRM that no one has been successful with open source applications?  The truly successful companies, like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, IBM, Apple, Intel have all broken new ground many times.  It's when they stop breaking new ground that you need to be concerned. 
     
  5. We do that already
    This is a great way to put people down and maintain the status quo.  Just maintain that we're already doing something like the suggestion.  If you find yourself putting down ideas as already being done see what you can do to add to the idea and make it better.
     
  6. The problem with that is...
    Some people like to play devil's advocate's so often that they should have horns and a pitchfork. They think that shooting down an idea is as good as coming up with one.  But it's not.  The role of devil's advocate can be valuable on occasion, when you are trying to evaluate competing good ideas, but it's a sure sign of a problem if too many people think their role is to be the gatekeeper to sainthood.  But don't mistake ruling out bad ideas as being as valuable as implementing new ideas.  There isn't a single great idea or great business that does not have problems.  But if you see your role as being the person who needs to point out problems, you will find that fewer and fewer people are willing to listen.  Life is too short to spend hanging out with the naysayers. 
     
  7. No one will like it
    Naysayers often seem to have perfect knowledge of what people like or don't like.  And they often use phrases like "everyone knows that..." or "no one will like it."  But I wonder, how can anyone know what everyone thinks?  Why not test it out?  Maybe it's true that many people will dislike something.  But perhaps some will absolutely love it and you can make those people happy.
     
  8. It will kill the company
    A great way to prevent the free-flow of ideas necessary for brainstorming is to polarize discussions.  I've often seen managers claim that their team will quit if a certain idea is pursued.  Talk about a conversation killer!  When you raise the stakes this high, naturally people become afraid of making any suggestions and you're left with the status quo. 

Since I only came up with 8 ideas for what should be a "Top 10" posting, perhaps others can add their own thoughts and ideas here.  I will create another posting later in the week on ways to brainstorm successfully.

Comments

Great top 8 Zack, I can see you had some more productive meetings than others recently...:) OK, let me try to add to your ideas to get to a top 10:

9. This is Stupid!
A reaction to an idea that has the merit to be straightforward and honest but also to kill the spirit of making innovative proposals, especially among the most recent recruits who can bring a fresh perspective to issues.

10. This is not the company culture
While having a strong company culture presents a number of great benefits it can sometimes paralyse people and limit their thinking. Values and change are not incompatible, actually only change can preserve values.

Great post, Zack, and I couldn't agree more! Here's another one:

11. Isn't there something more useful you can work on?
Usually this comes up when different folks' priorities clash, and they would prefer someone else "get on their track". Unfortunately, different priorities are a reality, and it's often best, IMHO, to acknowledge, and not undercut, the importance of other people's work within the company.

Cheers!

Very interesting post, Zack, it definitely got me thinking!

I have to say there's a flip side to all of that. If people really avoid doing all of the things in your list, it's a great recipe to let great ideas through - and let a lot more horrible ideas through as well.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, most of the things on the list very much depend on the situation, and nothing quite replaces common sense. Learning from the past, which some of the bullets on the list go against in one way or another, is one of the best ways to plan for the future. It's no coincidence that experience is the most valued currency in one's resume. The trick is being able to apply your experience where it's relevant, and not derive wrong decisions from irrelevant past experience.

In the same way, many (if not most) of the ideas people come up with have huge flaws and can generally be described as bad ideas. Turning down ideas is not only legitimate - it's a very important part of running a successful business. The trick, again is being able to tell the good ideas from the bad ones, and create an environment where people feel absolutely comfortable throwing ideas in the air, even if those ideas will not end up being implemented. We've been using that approach in Zend, and it's been working very well for us.

Every point in your list can be true or false, very much depending on the situation (experience, budget, people, market, etc.). If we could just apply this list irregardless of the context, it would have definitely be a simpler world. It isn't :)

Thanks for the interesting comments. The key point (as others have pointed out) is that there is a time to generate ideas and a separate time to evaluate them. Not every idea is worth implementing, but if you are too harsh in your evaluation of ideas (Billg: That's the dumbest idea I've ever heard!) then you tend to create a culture that does not generate new ideas. Instead, you want to nurture ideas, and have so many to chose from that you have the luxury of picking the best of the best. If you discourage risk taking or ideas in general, you'll find no one ever wants to risk speaking up.

Thank you very much for much-needed treatment on how to kill good ideas. I will share with the bosses!

The other day I stumbled accross a free and cool brainstorming tool and free of charge I might add. It works founded on the computation from combining varied aspects of your concept into a list and then the program spins fresh combinations supported on the list, that in turn conjures ideas you would seldom think of. After locating it, I employ it often, because it does help conceptually pretty well. http://brainstorming.purchasepedia.com

I just copied all the subjects,
since I am going to propose new Idea in my company (and since the last one receives all the answers listed) I am adding a slide with this wanderfull summary.

One more way to kill a good idea:

Pretending that you like the idea, but in essence not taking any action, or taking action that takes the idea in the wrong direction.

Marten

One more Zack: it will defocus us from what we are doing (which might not be working, btw...).

capo

Hear Hear!

I through in a one liner from General George S Patton,

"A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week."

...& from Sir Winston Churchill..

"Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm"

I do believe it applies in business as well as in War

Thanks Mark!
This is a great piece of work....and very useful. I hope you don't mind your cousin using some of it.
My best to Gregg!

Kevin

Great feedback everyone.

Marten, where have I seen that one before? ;-)

--Zack

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