#422  from Innovative Leader Volume 8, Number 9          September 1999

The Key to Innovation: Just Say..."Maybe"
by Jeffrey A. Govendo

Mr. Govendo is President of The Innovative Edge, in Woodville, MA, helping organizations
increase their capacity for innovation through creative problem-solving (phone 508-497-9096;
fax 508-435-8170;  jgovendo@innov-edge.com; www.innov-edge.com

Back in the '80's I was working for a small management development firm, where we were introducing a new, high-end package of consulting and training products designed to vault us to the forefront of the then-burgeoning total quality movement.  Each of us was asked to prepare a brief sales presentation for the package and present it at an internal meeting for critique and discussion.  Being fairly new to the firm, I was a bit nervous, and as I often do in such circumstances, volunteered to go first.  That way, I could get it over with, relax, and give my full attention to the presentations to follow.  I might add that despite my anxiety, I felt what I had put together was pretty good.  The total quality market was starting to get crowded with products, so I had included some "unique" positioning statements to differentiate ours from the rest.

I couldn't have been more than 90 seconds into the presentation when I noticed my boss, the company president, who at an imposing six-foot-seven sat as tall as most of us stood, shaking his head from side to side.  In total silence, but with body language and gestures that virtually shouted, "No! No! No!", my entire presentation, barely two minutes old, was rejected out of hand. I found myself unable--or unwilling--to continue, and gave up the floor to a colleague.  Frankly, I don't remember much of what happened the remainder of the afternoon.  I do recall that we settled upon a fairly traditional approach to positioning the package, one that sounded much like those that were already well established in the marketplace.  It was not a successful product.  Whether any aspect of my approach might have helped is pure conjecture; I'm making no such claim.  What is certain is that the firm never got the benefit of even considering it.

The Tragedy of Lost Ideas

As a consultant and trainer in the area of business creativity and innovation, I'm certain that scenarios such as this are replayed tens of thousands of times every day throughout the corporate world, often in a more subtle and insidious fashion than my example. Someone has a fresh idea or a new approach that is heard as a complete concept, evaluated as a whole, and then rejected for one reason or another (in the above instance, for no given reason).  No attempt is made to "work" the idea, to tease out the positive elements and problem-solve around the negatives.  It is simply shot down because something about the concept renders it unfeasible in the evaluator's opinion.  This happens not only between managers and their reports, but peer to peer also.  It is a very pervasive phenomenon.

What does this have to do with innovation in business?  Everything. It's at the very heart of the matter.  That's because every innovation, especially those we think of as breakthroughs, begins with a creative--and highly speculative--idea.  By their very nature, the more wishful and untested the ideas, the more flawed they will appear...the more faults we can find with them.  If our habit is to evaluate new ideas on the basis of their immediate feasibility, it is unlikely many of these will see but a brief glimpse of daylight before being summarily dismissed. I have little doubt that thousands upon thousands of these "seeds" are being tossed aside each and every business day (and plenty over the weekends, too).   And, for every creative idea discarded, there is an idea giver wondering if he or she should take the risk of offering another.  In an organizational culture that doesn't know how to be receptive to creative thinking, we not only lose ideas, but the idea-givers too.

I'm purposely saying "doesn't know how..." because by and large, business leaders appreciate, at least in the abstract, the value of creative capital in their organizations.  If asked, most would favor a more idea-friendly environment (at least they wouldn't be against it).  But doing so requires more than good intentions and saying the right words. Open-mindedness and receptivity to ideas are skills that can be learned, practiced and spread throughout an organization with proper training and coaching.   I recommend a five-step process for evaluating and developing a novel idea, and (with apologies to Nancy Reagan) it begins by just saying "maybe." (see end of article).

It's important to recognize that as you are overcoming the obstacles--that is, building in feasibility--you are in effect modifying the idea, sometimes transforming it.  What comes out at the end may look quite different from what you started with.  That's the nature of idea development.  This is perfectly okay, as long as the final product is perceived as having value, and can be acted upon.

The beauty of using this approach is that it allows you to start with a very fresh, very novel idea, and not be stymied by the inevitable flaws that come with it.  Because you have a means of systematically building feasibility into new and intriguing ideas, there is more freedom to use your imagination in generating those ideas--for "legitimate" business purposes. Think of the implications on an organizational level, as an inviting playing field beckons your employees to use more of their inherent creativity to solve difficult problems and exploit new opportunities.

Mark Twain once said, "Life does not consist mainly--or even largely--of facts and happenings.  It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts forever blowing through one's head."  Harness the power of that storm, and your organization will fly.

And it all begins by just saying... "maybe."

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Open-minded Evaluation and Development of an Idea

Step 1 - Just say "maybe"

Sound a bit indecisive?  Certainly some situations require quick decision-making, but in responding to new or unfamiliar ideas, this is a severely limiting response.  It cuts us off from a world of possibilities. Instead, make a conscious effort to refrain from the negative response that comes so readily when we're offered a "different" idea.  This is easier said than done.  Most of us have been well trained to zero in on why an idea won't work (we call this "critical thinking").  In this process, you must actively tell yourself that, given some constructive attention, the idea not only may have merit, it could be a winner!

Step 2 - Find the positives

Articulate those aspects or features of the idea that are positive, even if you can't endorse it as a whole.  Try to be specific about these. This is an important step, as it establishes a different mind set from the more typical "here's what's wrong" response.  It provides a rationale for continuing to work the concept, for letting it live a little longer.  Also, more often than not, it uncovers a surprising number of positive features that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.

Step 3 - Identify areas for further problem-solving

State the "downsides" as obstacles to overcome, rather than reasons the idea won't work.  Keep in mind that in the life of a new idea, this is its most vulnerable moment.  A negative barrage at this time will kill it for sure.  I'm not suggesting here that you gloss over or downplay the real problems associated with the idea, only that you keep it alive by inviting further problem-solving against its troublesome aspects, rather than shooting it full of holes.  For example,

"It's too expensive.  We can't do this within our budget."
    becomes
"Let's see if there's a way to do this more cost effectively."

Both statements bring up the cost issue. The first, however, closes the door.  The second leaves it open, and invites the problem-solvers in to continue their work.

Step 4 - Generate ideas against the obstacles

Focusing on the most difficult problem first, generate specific ideas to overcome it.  Start with the most challenging, since quite often subsequent issues are really a subset of this major concern; solving it frequently takes care of the others too.  Keep the ideas coming until you're satisfied that one or more of them adequately addresses the targeted obstacle.  Then, repeat this step as necessary with the remaining stumbling blocks until you're satisfied you've developed a concept with enough feasibility to act upon.

Step 5 - Create an action plan

As a final step, articulate the concept you've developed, making certain to include whatever new elements you have incorporated to make it feasible and actionable.  Create a list of immediate steps that would need to be taken in order to begin implementing the concept.

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