Where do your ideas die? (With a bad illustration)

I’m stuck in the Vancouver airport, waiting for them to find a new plane. Hard to complain about waiting for a new plane, when the old plane broke. Tell me the current plane might explode and I’m happy to wait, thank you very much.

Waiting at the gate, in between trying not to strangle the kid dancing precariously close to my luggage, and the guy with laptop problems on my left who has his volume set to 11 (I will be hearing the Windows startup song in my sleep), I made a sketch for ideas in organizations.

The arrows are the paths of different ideas. The box in the middle is the organization.


Whenever leaders want more innovation, they typically start by adding more inputs into the process. They seek out more ideas. Hey, let’s brainstorm! Or maybe we should crowdsource! Or how about getting everyone to mindmap!

Executives often do this flinchy sort of thing and it’s big news at many corporations to start “idea programs” to encourage people to submit ideas.

These programs are launched, ideas are submitted, and there is much rejoicing.

But little change.

The reason there is little change is that idea inputs were never the problem. The bottleneck was further upstream. Crowdsourcing, brainstorming, mindmapping, and the dozens of other techniques people obsess about help create early idea volume, but do little to help the curators, the people who winnow down the hundreds of ideas down to dozens, and dozens down to a handful.

It’s much more useful to study where the bottlenecks are, when and why new ideas are killed, and who the people are that are killing them.

If you have 1000 new ideas a month, but 0 prototypes are ever made from them, what good is another 2000 ideas? It’s much better to study why there is no time or rewards for prototyping and focus on getting that number to go up.

An easy diagnostic for innovation is the list of 10 stages – Where do ideas die in your world? That’s the place to study and make changes to help ideas survive longer in your organization.

The real challenge is getting ideas out the door – not how you generate ideas. It’s more useful to study how ideas die – what reasons are used? Who has the power to do it? And when and why are they using it?

Sorting out the lifecycle of ideas in an organization requires study and thought, while slapping more idea generation techniques on the front does not.

12 Responses to “Where do your ideas die? (With a bad illustration)”

  1. Richard

    Good observation. Many organizations seem to be incapable of self-analysis: is this process working, and if not, why?

    I joke that the conference room where most of our meetings are held should be called the room where ideas go to die.

  2. Scott

    To be fair it’s always hardest to see yourself, and it’s always easiest to do the thing we understand the best, even if it doesn’t help much.

    Tools for generating more ideas are easy to find and easy to implement, so even if they don’t change much in terms of what goes out the door, they’re easy and quick to implement and make people feel like the problem is being solved.

  3. Dorian Taylor

    I began to think of every activity as an algorithm. Every algorithm has to have a set of inputs, a working area, a receptacle for the result and of course a working algorithm itself. When any one of these components is missing or in short supply, the entire system suffers, just like how it’s extremely difficult to sort a box full of junk in situ.

  4. Hutch Carpenter

    Hi Scott –

    First off, loved your Myths of Innovation book. Right after I read that, I read Strategic Intuition by William Duggan. I’m smarter all around because of those books.

    Your post here is spot-on, and it’s such an interesting challenge. You’ve got thousands of ideas, but really, what are you going to do with them? Which ones have merit, which ones don’t?

    Do you know of Spigit (http://spigit.com)? Your post hits on exactly the problem Spigit solves. Basically, all ideas must graduate through a series of stages, each with their own criteria. You get both the wisdom of employees in terms of assessment, but also the prerogative of management to have final say. Finally, a subset of the best ideas can then be traded on an idea market, with prices fluctuating based on how strongly employees believe the idea will be implemented.

    I don’t know if you’ve come across Spigit, but I figured you might be interested.


  5. Dwayne Phillips

    In my experience, the senior managers cry for innovation and ideas. One major problem is that these senior managers wouldn’t know a good idea if it fill-in-the-blank-with-your-favorite-punchline.

    Senior managers – at least in government organizations – reached their position either by knowing someone or by refusing to do anything in their career that would upset people. Their top qualification is the ability to maintain the status quo.

    It is a good idea for idea generators to have a place where they keep their ideas. The senior managers come and go and you never know when one will walk in the door and actually be able to recognize innovation.

    I recently retired from government and now have a job with a corporation. I am going through all my old notebooks where I wrote my ideas. People in the corporation are actually listening to my old ideas. Maybe something will come of them.

  6. JohnO

    I’ve found, at my current employer, that the gate-keeper (department bosses) is where good ideas go to die. Employees can have all the good ideas in the world. But the bosses have the power to do nothing about them. The bosses also have the power to do something about their own ideas. I wonder which get more employees time spent on them, wait, no I don’t.

  7. Gordon

    Middle management have a good knack of killing ideas that are disruptive. This is partly because the current business model and measures of success force middle managers to pursue the sustaining trajectory. Even if a disruptive business model works, it won’t appear attractive to the firm as it is today. Managers arms are tied. Nobody really knows whether an idea will “work” — no matter how convincing somebody sounds. You have to look at people’s motivations: is this guy interested in keeping his job or, as Guy Kawasaki says, “righting a wrong” and actually doing something that benefits the market?

  8. Neil C. Obremski

    Ideas die in spacious offices filled with vacuous executives, hired above the founding folk, who make a vane attempt to pretend they’re doing something and care what others think…

    At least that’s ONE place I’ve seen them die, there are probably others.

    Throughout life we’re told to “listen” and not just “hear”; I think that’s the block these hit as well.

  9. Ian McAllister

    Scott, let’s face it, some (many) ideas should die, even some good ones. Instead of just making people like me (managers) the scapegoats, we need to teach people how to make a better case for their ideas, or to at least do a little more of the work to demonstrate that the idea is really a good one and would be meaningful enough to pursue.

    I elaborated on these points in a post I just put up: http://ianmcall.blogspot.com/2009/04/why-some-ideas-should-die.html).



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