How to Get to Genuinely Good Ideas

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Most new ideas really are pretty terrible. But, fortunately, there are ways to get to genuinely good ideas and to also make sure they work when you implement them.

In fact, the old saying “If you keep on doing what you’ve always done then you’ll keep on getting what you’ve always got” is only half right. These days, the world changes so much that if you “keep on doing what you’ve always done” then, pretty soon, you won’t be “doing” at all. You need new good ideas just to stay afloat. Innovation is not only a necessity at the top of the company, it’s necessary throughout the whole organization.

If you read a lot of business books that describe companies with new ideas, you’ll see there are two kinds of books: Those about companies that crashed and burned and those about  companies that had unparalleled success. Both sets of books have one thing in common: They give the impression that it was perfectly obvious right from the start which category each company fell into. With the “crash and burn” companies, the message is “If they’d only listened to cooler and wiser heads this disaster could have been avoided”; With the unparalleled successes, the message is “Fortunately, the forces of reaction couldn’t hold back these innovative pioneers.”

What’s interesting is that, back when each of these stories started, no one could accurately predict which companies would be successes and which would be failures. In fact, if you’re a betting person, you should always bet on failure: 92% of all startups fail. There are two reasons for this high rate of failure among companies with new ideas: (1) Most ideas really are bad ideas and (2) Implementing a new idea is really, really hard. So, even if you’re lucky enough to have a good idea, you’ll probably screw it up in execution.

This means that you shouldn’t feel badly about your bad idea. In fact, the next time someone tells you that one of your ideas is bad, you should quote Marge Simpson: “Well, Duh!”.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a way to get to a genuinely good idea. In Learning Tree’s course on Strategic Thinking for Operational Management, we discuss some strategies for creating genuinely good ideas and then helping to ensure they are successfully implemented.

Harvest Ideas from Your Environment

The first thing you need to do is to stop thinking that new ideas come from nowhere. Any “new” idea can be traced back to some previous idea and that, in turn, can be shown to have originated in some other, prior idea. All good, new ideas come from somewhere and you can go looking for them.

Looking at what competitors and peers do is one obvious place to look — but don’t limit yourself to looking at organizations doing the same kind of work that you do. One of the first books I ever read on user interface drew a lot of good ideas from a book on how Disney created animated movies (“The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation” by two of the Disney animators, if you’re interested). Henry Ford got his idea for the assembly line by looking at the work of Eli Terry (a clockmaker) and Samuel Colt (a gun manufacturer).

Another great source for ideas is to look at your last “crunch time” — that time when you had to get something done in “not enough” time. What did you do differently (other than working twenty hours a day) that could you apply to your day-to-day work methods?

I once headed up a programming team that had to deliver a new version of an application by the following week. We did it by working from 8:00am to 8:00pm over a weekend. Obviously, we didn’t want to do that again. But, during that time, we also realized that we had changed the way we worked. Among other changes, we cut ourselves off from distractions and we talked to each other a lot more. We applied those ‘lessons learned’  to our regular work (including not answering our phones, taking visitors, or checking email for three hours a day). We called our new style “hot house development” and, had we realized it, we adopted some of the techniques that became Agile programming and project management 15 years later.

Bang Lots of Ideas Together

If one idea probably isn’t good, lots of good ideas usually are. Your first idea probably won’t work…but your second idea combined with someone else’s fourth idea might actually be worth following up. So, instead of regarding an idea as an end in itself, bring the people who will be involved in implementing the idea together and get them to contribute to developing the idea.

In these types of gatherings, it’s easy for people to simply dismiss an idea. To get around that, make the goal of the group be “We are going to make this idea work. What do we have to do (and do to the idea) to make that happen?”

Criticizing an idea in these sessions is perfectly acceptable provided it leads to a way to make the idea possible (which, by the way, includes changing the original idea). For example, it’s OK to change current constraints by saying “Well, sure this would work if we had twice as many people serving customers.”  Once that’s brought up you can ask reasonable questions: “What would twice as many people actually cost us?”, “How much more would be able to get done with twice as many people…and what’s that worth to us?”, “Is it really twice as many people? How many more people is it, really? And what kind of people would they be?”

You can also ask questions  at these sessions to provoke more ideas. One good question to ask is “Why are we doing this — what are we trying to accomplish?” Once you’re clear on why you’re doing something, you can ask the follow-up question: “How else could we achieve that?” This, by the way, is part of what’s called “Functional Analysis” which we discuss in more depth in the Strategic Thinking for Operational Management course, along with FAST diagrams, which give you a way to visualize the results of these questions.

Get People to Commit…But Don’t Commit Too Much

When it comes to time to implement a new idea, things probably won’t work out the way you expect (in fact, you should assume it won’t work at all). If people see that new ideas lead to disaster and that the person with the idea takes even some of the blame, people are going to stop suggesting ideas.

You need to do three things to improve the odds that a new idea will succeed and avoid discouraging others when the inevitable failures occur:

  1. Don’t bet the company on a new idea! Always implement new ideas as pilots with limited scope. This lets you find what works/doesn’t work, and lets you make changes to improve the idea. If the idea doesn’t work out then not much harm is done and, as a result, you can still celebrate the person who came up with the original idea. After all, that person helped you learn something about your organization.
  2. Get people to commit to the new idea. People committed to an idea will find ways to make the idea work (even if it involves modifying the idea). If you’ve followed the steps in the first section to generate the idea then you will have started to get that commitment: People who contributed to the idea are already committed. As you implement the idea, recognizing and acknowledging people who have success in implementing the idea will build on that commitment.
  3. Encourage conversation about the idea. Regularly bring people together to talk about what is/is not working and what needs to be changed to gain success. Acknowledge that one of the options is abandoning the idea if it can’t be made to work…but that the goal of the meeting is to find ways to make the idea succeed. These meetings are also a great place to acknowledge the successes you recognized in step 2.

You don’t have to wait for inspiration to strike to get a new good idea that can be implemented successfully. In fact, if you follow the steps in this post you might even find yourself in an unusual position: You’ll have more good ideas that will work than you can possibly follow up on.

There’s more to say here and there are a couple of Learning Tree courses that tackle this topic. The Strategic Thinking for Operational Management shows how new ideas and innovation fit into the best practices for a department — how to make innovation an ongoing practice; on the other hand, Critical Thinking and Creative Problem Solving looks at improving your own, personal toolkit for solving problems with new, creative ideas.

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