When to Kill an Idea

The problem most people and organizations have is that they tend to kill ideas at the wrong times, either too early or too late, and this is very detrimental to their innovation process. Jeffrey Baumgartner explains to how to establish common-sense criteria for killing an idea

If you are running an innovative organization, you need to kill a lot of ideas. Indeed, you are probably doing so already. The problem most people and organizations have is that they tend to kill ideas at the wrong times – either too early or too late – and this is very detrimental to their innovation process.

In fact, most ideas are killed way, way too early. Consider the following exchange, variations of which can be heard daily in corporate corridors around the world:

Subordinate Sam: “I was just thinking. If we added wi-fi connectivity to our widgets, our customers…”

Managing Martha: “You must be joking! It would add to costs and what reasons would our customers possibly have for connecting wirelessly to the web?”

Sam: “Well, I thought…”

Martha: “I’m sorry, I’m on my way to a meeting now. I trust the financial projections for the next quarter will be on my desk by the end of business today!”

In just a few seconds, Managing Martha has killed an idea without even trying to understand it. Worse, if she does this a couple more times, she will essentially communicate to Sam and others that she does not welcome ideas. And they will learn to keep ideas to themselves. Sadly, this happens all the time in all but the most innovation-enlightened companies.

Idea generation or extermination actions?

Sadly, even when organizations purposely attempt to generate creative ideas, such as through brainstorming events, suggestion schemes and other activities, they often kill ideas off too early. Sometimes they even kill ideas during the idea-generation activities.

A worst case example was told to me by a manager of a global engineering firm. She explained how the company had set up a suggestion scheme to solicit ideas from employees. Moreover, they decided that it was critical to give idea submitters feedback as soon as possible in order to demonstrate that they were acting on all ideas received. Every idea was evaluated within a couple of weeks of submission and a report sent to the submitter.

Like most suggestion schemes, this one did not use ideas campaigns to focus creative thinking on specific business needs. As a result, all kinds of ideas came in. Most of them, of course, were unrelated to current business needs. Many were not even related to the company’s business at all! Following policy, idea submitters promptly received rejection notices.

In no time, staff figured out that submitting an idea to the suggestion scheme was a sure-fire method of getting a critical idea rejection notice; not surprisingly, the initiative died within weeks of its kick-off.

This same problem plagues many poorly facilitated brainstorming events, where participants, and particularly senior manager participants, criticize ideas during the idea generation stage. Other participants quickly learn that wild ideas are going to be criticized and learn to keep their creativity to themselves.

Poorly structured evaluation can kill promising ideas too quickly

If ideas make it past the creative idea generation process, the next step is to evaluate them in order to determine how well they meet corporate needs. In theory, this is a good time to kill ideas. You have generated a lot of ideas and now you need to select the best. This is normally done via some kind of evaluation process in which the idea is compared to one or more criteria for viability.

The danger here is that sometimes ideas might not initially meet a critical criterion. But with some modification, those ideas can be made to meet the criterion. For example, you might be reviewing a number of ideas to determine which ones could be implemented on a budget of $1 million. A particularly clever idea may, on first review, seem to need a budget of twice that much to implement. As a result, the idea is likely to be killed.

But, if the reviewers had asked themselves, “How might we do the same thing at half the cost,” they might not only have found a solution, but they might have made the idea even better.

Five criteria are best

Thus it is always better to evaluate particularly promising ideas according to several criteria (in our experience, five criteria work best). If an idea fails on one criterion, but scores highly on the others, it will still have a relatively high score and remain in consideration for implementation.

In addition, if you are truly keen on high-level innovation, you should always earmark the craziest, most outlandish and most creative ideas for further consideration. Such ideas may fail your regular evaluation tests because they are so unusual. You may have to create special evaluations to determine their viability.

In summary, ideas have a difficult birth and precious few actually survive to become projects – arguably the next stage in idea development. But when they do become projects, they become almost indestructible!

Indestructible projects

Unlike an idea, a project requires people to manage it. It requires a budget and should have clear goals. As the project develops, the people running it often establish an emotional attachment to it. Moreover, they realize that the project’s failure might at best be damaging to their reputations and at worst could be detrimental to their futures in the firm. The failure of a large project could result in people losing their jobs and corporate loss of face.

The result is that once an idea becomes a project, the people behind it are less likely to want to kill it – no matter how bad the results are. To make matters worse, the longer project managers keep a bad project going, the greater the consequences of failure. More money is wasted, more people are affected and more damage is done to reputations. So, ironically, the worse a project becomes, the harder it becomes for those behind it to kill the project.

This has consequences. As budget and resources are being sucked up by a once promising idea that has become a bad project, there is less budget and resources left for other promising ideas.

This, in fact, ruined many e-businesses that were devised during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s. Many had good, creative ideas behind them, but those ideas turned bad in their implementations. Sadly, rather than killing off bad ideas early on, managers sought – and often found – more venture capital to throw at their ideas, making their failures even more spectacular.

Boo.com, a UK based on-line fashion retailer that went bust in 2000, blew over £80 million on developing a very innovative, cutting-edge web site that included a virtual assistant and Flash-based tools for displaying garments. Sadly, these tools sucked bandwidth at a time when most consumers were connecting to the Internet with slow dial-up modems. Worse, the website’s usability was appalling.

As Boo.com failed, managers did not dump the innovative tools and try alternative approaches. Rather they threw more money at the tools and marketing. In the end, Boo made history but few sales.

Establish a balance of idea killing

Clearly, what organizations need to do is to allow more ideas to live longer during the early idea generation and incubation stage. Indeed, more ideas should become projects. But, those projects need to have very clear milestones, which must be reached at an early stage of the project. If those milestones are not reached, the project should be quietly killed and resources applied to a new project.

Likewise, managers behind projects should not be reprimanded if their projects do not reach early milestones. Rather, they should be rewarded for being sensible and encouraged to share their learnings with their colleagues in order to prevent similar failures in the future.

And then they should be given newly-incubated projects to work on.

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

About the author

Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of the book, The Way of the Innovation Master; the author/editor of Report 103, a popular newsletter on creativity and innovation in business. He is currently developing and running workshops around the world on Anticonventional Thinking, a new approach to achieving goals through creativity.

Photo: Boss killing the ideas from Shutterstock.com

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