Where do good ideas come from?
Sometimes they come like the proverbial thunderbolt, and sometimes they emerge as a solution to a recurring nuisance problem. But sometimes ideas have to be discovered and nurtured — and though it’s not always the titled leader who has the idea, the leader is crucial to providing a safe environment where ideas can be discussed and tested.
Discovery is about finding the problems that need to be solved and taking in information that could indicate future trends. All organizational members are involved in some type of discovery every day — catching up on the news or walking around the shop floor or meeting with the team. Any time new information comes to light, the seeds of discovery are planted. This is not to say that every bit of data is actionable. It’s not, and it would be foolish to think that it would be. But sometimes pieces of information can be filed away for later, when their meaning becomes more clear or their value more pressing.
Crucial to discovery is communication and information flow. In some organizations, information flow is short-circuited or teams are homogenous. That is, the right information doesn’t land on the right desk of someone who could use it, or those serendipitous conversations are not happening because of a siloed work environment. If everyone has the same background or shares the same tasks, it’s harder for that spark to be lit. For those aha moments to proliferate, leaders need to make sure that communication happens and that information is shared.
For discovery to lead to ideation, leaders also need to provide some sense of the parameters. Is it anything goes? Steve Jobs gave the team that developed the iPhone a relatively free range to search, test and explore, but at the same time he made sure they were accountable. However, if the problem that needs to be solved is urgent or has to be done on a shoestring budget, the leader can frame the ideation canvas more tightly.
Once an idea has attained a bit of viability, the leader can work on moving toward delivery. This means getting support from others outside of the project group. The leader should consider the idea in light of the organization. Is the new idea revolutionary? Is it to be expected — that is, is it in line with what the organization traditionally does?
The leader ideally would approach people or groups who would be more receptive to the idea in the first place. For instance, if the idea is truly groundbreaking, it’s not necessarily a good idea to approach the traditionally minded finance director first. Maybe the new VP who was hired for his creative chops would be a better initial ally. Leaders must know the organizational terrain and have a sense of where the potential supporters and resistors are. They start with incorporating the likely supporters, and when they have a bit of critical mass, they can move on to the resistors.
It’s a given that there will be resistors. Even though everyone is for change in theory, and even though no one will object publicly, they might say things like, “Oh, we tried this before and it didn’t work.” They are not saying that they are not for the idea, but they are sending a warning signal that it might be better not to try. It’s important for leaders to prepare for resistance and work out a strategy for satisfying any objections others might have.
Sometimes objections are rooted in fear of the new or in a sense that one will lose power or turf. Additionally, some people will have legitimate and rational reasons not to get behind a new idea. Leaders need to spend time thinking about overcoming the fears and hesitations of others. They need to think about how they can minimize risk and show the likelihood and benefits of success.
A good idea — no matter where it comes from — is not enough. A good idea needs to be nurtured and supported, not only in its early stages, but as it grows from ideation to prototype to implementation.