According to Gallup , only 30% of employees strongly agree that their opinions seem to count at work – and less than 1 in 10 report having the freedom to take risks to improve products and services.
Amy Edmondson is correct when she says this a terrible state of affairs – with the dial hardly shifting on this for over a decade. It’s something that may have been acceptable back in 1922 on a production line which was all about volume, precision and sticking to a rigid one size fits all . The Henry Ford quote “A customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants, so long as it is black.” became iconic because it it exemplifies an era in which any interference or opinion from the customer or employee brought the system to a stand still.
One hundred years later though, most of us not are employed in such rigid roles and customer demand and employee expectation have changed beyond all recognition.
So why is management not receptive to ideas – and what can we do about it?
1. AN IDEA IN SEARCH OF A PROBLEM
Many of us have a bias towards getting quick answers. We favour execution rather than contemplation. Great performance at work is usually defined as creating and implementing solutions rather than finding the best problems to tackle.
So we become very good at providing solutions— even if they happen to be the wrong ones.
Ideas are far more persuasive to management when they are rooted to a really wicked problem that costs the organisation time and money.
2. THE IDEA ISN’T FULLY FORMED
There’s a reason the boss might not be enthused about your latest idea. Great ideas are almost never born fully formed. They usually start off half-baked. It’s only when you share them with others, challenge them, refine them, start building them, that they start to develop into something meaningful.
Pitching a half formed idea too early is likely to ruin your credibility – so take your time.
3. THE IDEA DOESN’T HAVE TEAM SUPPORT
Ideas for most of us will require collaboration with others. Musician Brian Eno talked about a ‘scenius’ as a counter to the myth of the lone genius or innovator. Under this model great ideas are formed from the intelligence of a whole operation or group of people. These people support each other, steal and refine each other’s work and contribute their own ideas.
Doing this has the added bonus of forming a larger number or people invested in the idea. The more people involved, the more persuasive it is to management.
It’s worth reading Kevin Kelly’s exploration of the Eno approach and the key factors:
- Mutual appreciation — Risky moves are applauded by the group, subtlety is appreciated, and friendly competition goads the shy. Scenius can be thought of as the best of peer pressure.
- Rapid exchange of tools and techniques — As soon as something is invented, it is flaunted and then shared. Ideas flow quickly because they are flowing inside a common language and sensibility.
- Network effects of success — When a record is broken, a hit happens, or breakthrough erupts, the success is claimed by the entire scene. This empowers the scene to further success.
- Local tolerance for the novelties — The local “outside” does not push back too hard against the transgressions of the scene. The renegades and mavericks are protected by this buffer zone.
4. THE IDEA ISN’T SIMPLE ENOUGH
I was listening to Michio Kaku talk about how great ideas should be visual and simple. “Einstein once said, ‘If a theory cannot be explained to a child, then the theory is probably worthless’. Meaning that great ideas are pictorial. Great ideas can be explained in the language of pictures. Things that you can see and touch, objects that you can visualize in the mind.”
Complicated ideas have a tendency to fall apart, because people can not describe them accurately or consistently.
Try pitching a simple idea that you can execute brilliantly.
5. YOU HAVEN’T GENERATED ENOUGH IDEAS
The physicist Linus Pauling, a two-time Nobel prizewinner, gave us a great principle: if you want to have good ideas, you must have lots of ideas and learn to throw away the bad ones.
It’s always tempting to pitch your first idea which is often your worst idea. The skill is to generate lots and abandon most of them.
The Pauling Principle implies three important things:
- You must be willing to generate many ideas
- You must be willing to generate bad ideas
- You must become skilled at idea selection not just generation
If you’ve followed all these AND got some data about the cost of the problem you should have enough evidence to get backing behind your idea.
And if you don’t succeed there is one final option:
Find a better boss.