In our work helping organizations build and sustain cultures of innovation, we’ve found that people in roles not directly connected to “innovation” aren’t sure what to do when they’re asked to “be innovative” or support innovation culture. In an effort to help these people internalize what they’re being asked to do, we took a note from Clayton Christensen’s “jobs to be done” framework and looked at the situations they’re in and the specific actions they can take.
Situation 1: You have an idea
Most people do one of three things when they uncover a new idea that could help their organization innovate: (1) they tell a few people, receive no offers of support or directly negative feedback (“we’ve tried that before”/“it won’t work here”) and then quit, (2) they make a business plan, pitch their boss, make a large ask to the tune of millions in funding and full time hires, are told no and then quit, or (3) they share their idea with no one and nothing ever happens.
The problem with all three of these scenarios is that you’re letting opinions and ego kill the idea before it’s given a chance to prove itself worthy of time and resources.
Consider a new approach.
- Step 1: Assume your idea is terrible. Starting with humility grants you the flexibility needed to change your idea, which you must be willing to do if you expect to have any reasonable chance of success.
- Step 2: Tell everyone about it, but don’t let anyone kill it. Only you have the right to kill your idea. The goal is to get input and learn. Get coworkers to share their worries early and evolve your idea (or your story) to address their concerns if needed.
- Step 3: Make a list of all the reasons it won’t work and rank those in order of what scares you most.
- Step 4: Run quick experiments and do some research to try and prove that the scariest reason it won’t work is true. You’re trying to prove yourself wrong. This will put you in a great position to battle future objections when you ask for resources — you’ll be telling a story about how you validated your idea and why it’s good. Instead of theories, you’ll be able to show charts, graphs, testimonials and prototypes.
- Step 5: If you successfully gather evidence that it will fail and you don’t know how to change the idea, kill it and move on to the next.
- Step 6: If the idea survives, run the next experiment.
Your goal is to use data — not opinions — to turn your good idea into a great idea that the company can’t ignore.
Situation 2: Someone tells you their idea
If your peers are coming to you with their ideas, the best way to build a sustaining culture of innovation is to set aside your opinion and empower them to make decisions to kill or proceed with the ideas using data. Larry Page is notorious for doing this — he would micro-fund ideas he thought were terrible. Some of those ideas turned into keystone Google products, including Paul Buchheit’s Gmail.
Remember that people want to work on stuff they care about. They want to know their ideas are heard, they want more flexibility in what they work on and they are inspired by connecting directly with customers and solving real problems.
Here’s an action guide when someone comes to you with an idea.
- Hate it? Explain your concerns, but do so productively and keep in mind that you could be wrong. Don’t beat the creativity out of them by making a blanket negative proclamation or pointing out more important projects at the company. They will stop going to people with their ideas or stop having ideas altogether because it will feel pointless to them, thus killing organic innovation before it starts.
- Love it? Great, but don’t give them lots of resources yet.
- In either case, challenge them to de-risk the idea through early validation research (customer development interviews, experiments, prototypes) and then come back to you with the results.
- Offer to help and connect them to others in the organization who can do the same.
- Don’t shoot down ideas just because they’ve been tried before. Sometimes an idea fails because of politics or bad timing.
Situation 3: You’ve been assigned a new project
I often hear from people within large organizations that it’s not always clear where ideas come from and it can be demotivating to work on a project with unclear objectives. When assigned a new charge with little context, focus on its purpose and take the opportunity to engage your team and leadership in early exploration.
- Ask questions to understand the project’s origin. Make your way up the chain for clarity of purpose and objectives.
- Run well-designed experiments and let the data decide if you should move forward or change the idea.
- Use your data to tell the story of how and why the idea has changed. Paint the picture to show you are reducing risk (the risk of building something no one wants) and using your time and resources efficiently to ensure you are pursuing something that has real, visible traction.
- Push back on the size and diversity of the assigned team. Use Janice Fraser’s Balanced Teams Approach, in which the optimal team size is three people — engineer, designer and marketer/business owner. Large teams lead to less accountability and slower decisions — pitfalls of innovation.
- Don’t let too many status meetings or reporting requests remove your focus. Projects can die by committee and meetings.
Situation 4: You’re a new hire
If you’re in a new role or organization, here are some things to do that demonstrate you actively support a culture of innovation.
- Work on things you care about. When you find something that excites you — whether its an existing project or something new — just start working. Avoid directly asking for permission.
- Find ways to talk directly to customers, regardless of the role you’re in. Stay connected to the consumer. They will inspire you.
- Never do the same thing twice. Look for small ways to innovate and automate. If you work yourself out of a task, you’ll be free to take on new challenges.
- If you get fired for trying to be innovative, the company is doomed anyway. Run for the hills!
Carie Davis is a former Coca-Cola Global Director of Innovation & Entrepreneurship. She started Your Ideas Are Terrible and The Enterprise Growth Institute and serves as Program Director of the BridgeCommunity. She works with global companies to implement tools & systems for a steady flow of validated ideas.