Killing innovation with questions and other nasty stunts
By Gary C. Graziano, AIA and Christopher W. Miller, Ph.D.
“No army can withstand the strength of an idea whose time has come.” – Victor Hugo
Let’s face it: ideas are disruptive. They get in the way of efficiency and take too much time to develop and communicate. They cost money. And generally, they disrupt the status quo. Ideas also can be threatening if not well understood. Most of us have really good defense mechanisms for maintaining the status quo, so we can kill ideas before they become too obnoxious. In this article, we will recommend some great ways to swat bothersome ideas before they ruin your day.
Perverted Probing (Ninety percent of questions are either alternative ideas or rejections.)
- The best way to kill an idea is to ignore it or fail to hear it hidden within a timid question: “We couldn’t arrange to move the paper storage closer to the copier, could we?”
- The second best way to kill an idea is to question it to death. Business schools are really good at teaching this transparent technique. Sometimes businesspeople and politicians use this technique to cause paralysis by analysis so they can avoid making risky decisions or taking unpopular stands. Here are the questions most often asked by “inquiring minds” claiming to be formulating an opinion, when they are, in fact, shielding themselves behind a wall of killer questions:
- Can you be sure it will work? What if it doesn’t? We need more research. (Although research is important, it can only reduce uncertainty, not guarantee success.)
- How many do you think we’d sell, to whom, and for what price and margin? And how do you know? (While these are good questions, they are inappropriate except when addressed in a very general way in the early idea stage.)
- Don’t you know that we’ve already tried this — at least five times in the last 20 years? (Read: “You ignorant brat.”)
- Another great way to kill an idea is to ask a question and then answer it with your own negative speculation so you can avoid the danger of being confused by the facts or having others learn them. Done in the right forum, negative speculation can sufficiently embarrass the idea generator so that s/he will never bring another bothersome idea forward.
- Yet another effective approach is to feign a positive response before going negative: “I think it’s a great idea—but do you honestly think the boss would ever go for something like this?”
- And our favorite approach is to behave like a quant jock management consultant or hit man CEO so you can defer risky decision-making by applying “safe,” “results oriented” quarterly thinking to long-term strategic projects. All you have to do is ask, “What makes you think we’d be able to afford this now—or even this year?” There is never a good enough answer to this question.
- “Gee, that’s a great idea. Put it in the suggestion box above the trash can in the lunch area. Watch out for the spiders.” (Suggestion boxes are coffins for good ideas.)
- Have a mystery process that never ends with between 5 and 500 steps to move an idea to the approval level. Sound crazy? It isn’t. In the early 1990s, Hunt Manufacturing discovered that they had 450 documented steps to launch a single new Xacto™ knife blade.
- Devise penalties for failure that exceed the rewards for success. Then make sure that the idea initiators understand they will be stuck putting in the extra time required to make it happen. And if they do well, they get to keep their job but won’t have any opportunity for promotion because the company needs people like them to stay just where they are to get high career risk things done.
- Heap “deadwood” on the project because they’re not contributing anything to the bottom line anyway and because it’s easier than firing them.
- Announce a strategy that’s all about getting “back to basics.” Reading between the lines, the cognoscenti will know that it’s time to go about quietly killing that which is annoying or troublesome or hasn’t turned a profit before – or yet.
A simple way to save an idea or idea generator: The structured conversation
While some ideas need nurturing, others deserve a quick and painless death. One elementary school principal tells of an elderly janitor who proposed that all kids should take off their shoes and place them in a big box by the door when coming in from the playground. Rather than rejecting the janitor’s idea, the principal conducted a structured conversation to find out what led the janitor to his conclusion. The principal was sure that the shoe box idea was a dud, dead on arrival, and dangerous. He also was sure that he needed the next idea the janitor would come up with. He knew that unless he treated this idea with respect, he’d never see the one about how to fix the leak in the roof with just two dollars’ worth of Silly Putty.
The structured conversation the principal used has four steps:
- Paraphrase – Restate the idea. When the idea generator agrees that you have it right, write it down.
- Value the idea and the idea generator – Declare at least three things that are good about the idea. Stretch yourself, write them down.
- Honestly express your concerns – Use how-to language. “Can we figure out how to make this happen?”
- Discuss the concerns – See if you can work with the innovator to modify the idea so that it is feasible. When the janitor and the principal arrived at step four, they morphed the janitor’s bad shoebox idea into the idea of placing an oversized floor mat at the door—one that was large enough so the kids could not jump over it on their way in from recess.