Looking Down, Looking Up

In a recent conversation with an innovation leader inside a large global company, we were discussing the proverbial fuzzy front end and the idea evaluation process when he remarked, “We don’t have any perceived pain in that area.” Later, I reflected on that comment and wondered, “Perceived? By who?” I thought about other conversations I’ve had with folks at various levels inside large organizations and an interesting irony struck me.

The irony is this: To those looking down the organizational ladder, the problem typically stated is, “We need more and better ideas.” That’s a polite way of saying, “My people aren’t being creative enough,” or, the more magnanimous, “We’re not being creative enough.” Yet to those looking up the organizational ladder, the problem is often described very differently as, “How do I get them to seriously consider my ideas?” This comment is often delivered with a resigned chuckle and is especially true of those facing yet another stage gate review.

Each perspective contains an element of truth—and each reveals a little finger pointing. In a sense, both are saying the same thing, “I’m doing my part; now, if those other folks would just do theirs.” Still, there’s one crucial difference: Those looking up have limited power to change the system. If they perceive that it’s not working, they can either tough it out or opt out. Opting out may not mean leaving the company; it may just mean opting out of offering creative ideas. So a perverse sort of feedback is created in which the perception that people aren’t being creative becomes self-fulfilling. The problem is defined as a lack of creativity, so there’s little inclination to reconsider the decisions that dampen that creativity.

This is a major blind spot inside many organizations. One symptom of it is the number of managers and companies who willingly seek help generating ideas, but have no interest in discussing their own decision-making processes. We all tend to assume that we can spot a good idea when we see one. But anyone who’s ever pushed a novel idea through most organizations—including some of those most noted for innovation—will attest to a very different experience.

Ideation facilitators know how important it is to lay down some ground rules to assure that everyone’s ideas are given due consideration. Yet such rules are rarely discussed outside of those ideation sessions, much less consistently practiced by the managers and teams who routinely pass judgement on others’ ideas. Innovative leadership is about taking a hard look at how ideas are received and evaluated, to assure that the system encourages rather than discourages creative input. It means truly welcoming and exploring the ideas you receive. That’s powerful positive feedback that will not only change the behavior of those with ideas to offer, it will cultivate and enhance their ideas.

The hard truth is—ahem—maybe your company isn’t getting enough good ideas because you’re not as good as you think you are at recognizing a good idea when you get one.

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