Leader Volume 8, Number 9
Key to Innovation: Just Say..."Maybe"
Govendo is President of The Innovative Edge, in Woodville, MA,
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
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.
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
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
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."
1 - Just say "maybe"
Sound a bit
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
2 - Find the positives
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.
3 - Identify areas for further problem-solving
"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.
too expensive. We can't do this within our budget."
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.
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.
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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