There Is No Such Thing As a Good Idea: Breaking down the barriers that damage creative energy


By: Christopher W. Miller

Creativity lurks in most organizations just waiting to be unleashed. Once it is released; new solutions to old problems, new ways of defining challenges, new methods and processes emerge. Unfortunately, most organizations do not have the vigor, and most managers don’t have the energy or resources, to deal with new ideas. Over time organizations build a large variety of techniques to eliminate ideas that cannot be resourced, and over time these techniques become well established barriers. Some barriers are formal well-meaning evaluation processes, but most are informal destructive barriers that seem to exist only to make even the most modest change into a complicated task.

Organizational barriers create a climate which stifles the generation of new ideas and reduces the incentive to share them if they do emerge. Barriers tend to fall into three categories:

  1. Cultural roadblocks
  2. Management style
  3. Operational style

Understanding that these are very different types or barriers with different types of remedies is the first step in getting your idea through icy organizational waters or to start to help your organization become a more idea friendly environment.

Cultural roadblocks

Cultural roadblocks are perhaps the most difficult to overcome. The basic message is that, “We do important work here. There is a ‘proven and safe’ way to do the job. Any variation to this approach is a threat to our mission.” It sounds reasonable, but in fact, the methods being protected are anything but proven and are frequently anything but safe. They are simply protected by fear. Three kinds of fear you must overcome:

1. Office politics. Some might call it office politics, but more often it is employee worry about what the boss will think and how others might react to the idea. This might even be holdover fear of being the overeager hand-raising volunteer in 5th grade when all the other kids have started to become “too cool’ to volunteer.  Ideas are dressed in “data clothes” made to look acceptable and comfortable. Pretending to look the same, they become the same.

2. Resistance to change. Let’s be honest change is inefficient. You have to experiment with the new approach a dozen times to even understand it, let alone make it work well. And, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Well, the fact is that everything was once an experiment, and every system of any size and maturity is a broken kludge held together with so much chewing gum that it just smells good, but underneath it is an undocumented mess. How many people are just hoping that the current method just holds together until they can transfer?

3. The cast system. We protect our class and our silo. Never mind that the best ideas frequently come from the outside, because those on the outside are the only ones who can see the whole. New or external people with ideas to help you are both unwelcome and considered to be meddling busy bodies. Don’t they have enough of their own problems?

Odds are that with all of this going on you will never hear the one idea that could change your organization for the better. Great organizations therefore rarely try to get buy-in to an idea… they get buy-in to understanding and then to solving an agreed to and important problem. In this way, ideas can come from anywhere and some of the best idea teams meld the tested veteran with the new employee or source of outside expertise. Ideas are not solutions until they are tested, so they go through an experimental and developmental phase. Frequently the most important creative energy is the energy that goes into solving the problem. We ask, “how do we make this happen,” not “what should happen?”

Managerial roadblocks

We managers are often our own worst enemies when it comes to encouraging creativity.  Our job is to manage; to be confident; to be in control. Too many of us think we can maintain calm control while encouraging creativity.  It just doesn’t work that way. Here are four of the most dreaded management roadblocks:

1. Keep them in the dark. Don’t tell employees why you don’t like an idea. Keep them guessing with statements like, “I’ll know it, when I see It.” Not understanding what success will look like is a great way to discourage ideas.

2. Be dictatorial. Demand ideas, NOW.  As the ideas come forward, use your editorial skills to kill them one at a time. Then when you are out of time, present your idea and demand that “they” make it happen. “Here is an idea, now execute it.”

3. Procrastination. Stall; giving the go ahead, only at the last possible minute. Now the project is behind schedule; demand that they play catch up; and express your frustration at people’s unwillingness to be a team player and get the job done.

4. Unrealistic resources. Add a task to the workload without consideration for what can be taken off the plate. “Never mind that the last systems upgrade of this kind took 3 years…we can do it in three months.  And we can do it in our spare time.”

Confident control of creativity means that you have a budget formally or informally for experimentation. You expect and plan for failure, and you have processes for learning and growing with each failure. You don’t pretend that every experiment deserves further funding. You might even consider a process of recognizing great ideas that don’t work; the “close but no cigar” category. Now, with this experiment under your belt do you have the courage to regroup and try it again? If you do, you have moved from management to leadership.

Operational Roadblocks

Every way of operating efficiently can also be a way of inhibiting creativity. Understanding this is the first step to overcoming it.

1. Formal rules and protocols. Rules keep things in order. Chaos is not creativity; it is chaos. If the rules are too tight, rigid or not explained they will squelch energy. Rules need to be understood in order to be embraced. When embraced they can be an aid to creative energy focusing it and providing guidance. Contrary to common belief artists are extraordinarily structured. They strive for perfection, as they define it, and explore the limits of their art.

2. Bureaucracy (The thing we all love to hate). Red tape is the nemesis of organizational creativity. All ideas; big or little, immediate opportunities or for the long haul, break-through or clever tweaks; are treated the same.  The approval list comes out on the third Tuesday of the quarter. Resources are disconnected from recommendations. And no one, especially the idea originator, understands or at this point cares.

3. Negativism and evaluation. “We have tried that before.” “I wouldn’t do that. But you can try it.” “Ha, good luck with that one.” “John will never buy it.” Questions kill. “Can we do that within budget?” “Where are we going to get the time to do this?” “Why is this our job?” If an idea is rejected, managers have the responsibility to provide a valid reason so that they can direct the team toward higher quality thinking. Evaluation processes should be learning processes as much as decision-making processes.

4. Incentives. Incentives are tricky in the innovation space. They often demotivate as much as motivate. Whose idea is it really? Is the real innovation in the idea or the dozens of ideas that make it happen? Do we want to encourage ideas or ideas that happen? If it happens, it probably took a team…the whole team. The recognition of a heartfelt thank you is often the best answer.


With all of this in the way it is hard to imagine that ideas can ever come forward, let alone into reality, in today’s complex, regulated and ever-changing organizational world.  Yet they do. New ideas are organizational bumble bees. They can’t fly yet they do.

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