How did the Chia Pet ever get to market without someone killing the idea? Some ideas might really be bad ideas and they die a natural death along the way. Many others never make it to the starting gate and then someone comes along and brings a similar idea to fruition.
You or someone you know has a good idea and before it has a chance to breathe its first breath, an idea killer strangles it in infancy. In the October 2010 Harvard Business Review, John P Kotter identifies 24 idea killing questions and proposes ways to deal with them.
We Can’t Because…
Most idea-killing assaults take the form of:
We can’t because… or We don’t need to because…
- we don’t have the money
- it won’t work
- it’s not who we are
- you haven’t thought about all of the issues
- it’s too big or it's too trivial
Don’t Wing It
New ideas seem to create an enthusiastic desire to share the new idea with everyone you talk to. Kotter’s advice is don’t do it. Don’t wing it. Before you share the fledgling idea with anyone, take a few minutes to anticipate the kind of reaction you’ll get from what I call the corporate immune system—the people who would rather kill a new idea than take the time to consider it.
What will higher management say? What will people who’ve been doing it the same way forever say? They’re going to start with “we can’t because…” and add some seemingly rational sounding reason. How are you going to respond? How can you gently challenge the irrationality in their answer? How can you garner support for the idea before you tackle the curmudgeons?
Kotter recommends responding with short, clear, common sense answers to the idea killer. I’d recommend using some sleight of mouth to flip their criticism.
Idea Killer Sleight of Mouth
- We can’t because we don't have the money. How would not having enough money make it even easier and more effective to implement?
- We can’t because it won’t work. Not even trying means it really can’t work. As John Wooden would say: You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.
- We can’t because it’s not who we are. You're right, it’s not about who we are, it’s about who our customers want us to be.
- You haven’t thought about all of the issues. What issues, specifically?
- We can’t because it’s too big. How are we supposed to grow if we don’t tackle big ideas?
- We don’t need to because it’s too trivial. How can anything that benefits customers be too trivial?
Get the idea? We need to imagine what people will say and how to respond to it, because everyone isn’t going to be on our side.
Turn your ears on. Listen to the idea killers you hear every day. Make a list. Use it to prepare any new idea for the storms of criticism it's sure to create.
DO listen to constructive criticism. Also consider the source. Is the person objective, or is it your envious brother-in-law? Does the source come from one of expertise? If you know nothing about jewelry and have a new idea for a bracelet, run it by an expert. Remember the episode of Project Runway where the finalist created a whole line of clothing decorated with human hair? Not the best idea, but he was nearly complete with his fashion line before consulting the expert. Don’t make “hair suits” but don’t let every criticism kill your good ideas either.
Be prepared. Don’t wing it. Develop a reasoned response for every idea killer you've heard as a way to prepare an idea for it's coming out party.
Start with fans. Reveal the idea to people you trust, who you’d expect to be fans of the idea. They will probably offer improvements. Tune up the idea as it goes so that it becomes more robust. Some of the people you trust will offer idea killers. Practice your response on them.
Be flexible. Once you start spreading the idea, assume that you'll hear a new idea killer that you’ve never heard before. Take a moment to digest it, figure out how to sleight-of-mouth it and respond as Kotter says with short, simple, common sense.
Idea killers stop progress. They don’t mean to, but they are probably overwhelmed and can’t tolerate one more thing, even if it will make their life better. Your job is to be more resourceful than they are and help them see a way forward that won’t cost them much but deliver huge value.
Become an idea merchant. Learn how to prepare your idea, anticipate objections and respond with clarity. You’ll get more done and the world will be a better place to live. It’s up to you.