Stop Asking For Ideas

Everyone has an idea they want to share. So, what do you do when your business is flooded with them?
Innovation Evangelist, 24/7 Innovation
May 23, 2011

I recently gave a presentation on innovation for a company that sells travel packages online. The presenter who preceded me was the executive in charge of creating the technology that automatically sends follow-up e-mails to prospects who visited the site.

A few minutes into his presentation, he displayed a slide that showed the typical e-mail used in their follow-up campaign. The audience of 50 executives immediately shouted out ways of improving the e-mail. This went on for over 30 minutes. The problem was nearly all of the ideas had been tried before, were not practical, or were inappropriate.

Everyone in your organization will have an idea. They will have suggestions on how to improve the business. And they will have opinions on what to do differently. You don’t need more ideas.

Albert Einstein reputedly said, “If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute finding solutions.” Unfortunately, most organizations are running around spending 60 minutes finding solutions to problems that don’t matter.

To accelerate your innovation efforts, you need to get better at solving challenges, which if implemented, will create massive value for the organization. It involves seeking solutions instead of suggestions. One of the greatest skills an organization can possess is the ability to ask the right question, the right way.

Asking the right question the right way means identifying the real opportunities for the organization. It also requires you to articulate the question in a way that increases the likelihood of the challenge being solved.

BP discovered that asking a question the “wrong way” can result in idea overload. After the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon well, they created an online suggestion box that encouraged concerned citizens to submit ideas on how to stop the flow of oil. They received nearly 123,000 submissions. On the surface, this might sound like a huge success. But out of all of these ideas, only a dozen or so were deemed as having any value.  This means that 99.99 percent were duds. The amount of energy required to process this many bad ideas is massive.

A major bank tried a similar approach, asking their employees for their suggestions on how to improve the business. Although they received several thousand ideas, none were implemented and the entire innovation team was fired. A well-known software company used the same strategy. After receiving over 10,000 ideas yet only implementing two, the program was shut down.

Your organization is probably drowning in ideas, suggestions and opinions. Although there might be nuggets of value in these, it takes a lot of panning to find the gold.  Instead, when you become masterful at asking the right question the right way, you will most likely be able to quickly and efficiently solve challenges that have the potential to create huge value.