Beware the High Cost of Chasing Too Many Good Ideas

Overhead view of team working on plans

It sounds counterintuitive to kill off good ideas, but chase too many of these darned things and you will find your firm moving nowhere quickly.

A few years ago, Stanford Professor, Robert Sutton, wrote a great article for Harvard Business Review, entitled: “If You’re the Boss, Start Killing More Good Ideas.” (tiered subscription model). In the article, he credits Steve Jobs with the following theme at a management conference at Yahoo:

“Jobs advised them that killing bad ideas isn’t that hard... . He insisted that what is really hard—and a hallmark of great companies is killing good ideas. For any single good idea to succeed, it needs a lot of resources, time and attention.”

You should repeat that last phrase daily: “For any single good idea to succeed, it needs a lot of resources, time and attention.”

When Good Ideas do Damage

When consulting with a major retailer a few years ago, one of the most visible signs of the culture was a frenetic energy around moving ideas off of the whiteboard and into formal projects. It was widely understood that the best way to catch the eyes of senior management was to either lead and gain approval for a project, or, to find a way to attach yourself to the big ideas and expansive project teams of the firm’s fast-trackers.

Ideas were everywhere. Projects multiplied like rabbits. It was chaos.

The result of this idea-fueled project culture run amok was a classic case of too many project chasing too few resources. There were dozens of great ideas being pursued by project teams, yet few finished and even fewer made a difference to the firm’s results. At the height of the firm’s success in the market, the internal engine charged with refreshing and renewing and sustaining success creaked and groaned and eventually failed, opening the doors for some much more focused and disruptive competition.

The word “no” is one of the most powerful management tools in your toolkit. It is also one that is under-utilized. Here are 8 questions for you and your team to ask and answer before saying “Yes” to yet another interesting idea.

8 Questions to Ask and Answer Before Saying “Yes” to Every Good Idea

1. Does the idea support our core strategy? If not, kill it. If your strategy is not clear and it is not providing a mechanism for filtering ideas, solve this problem first. In the absence of a clear strategy, all ideas seem viable.

2. Is there a customer experiencing significant, visible pain that this idea resolves? If you are focusing on benefits only, beware. Be careful attempting to justify a new initiative because of all of the perceived benefits it delivers. At the end of the day, burden relief typically outsells benefits. 

3. Is the idea a “me-too” initiative in direct response to a competitor? If yes, work harder to find a way to differentiate your offering or firm from your competitor. Playing “follow the competitor” is typically a formula that guarantees you will lose.

4. Are your current customers screaming for this feature? Remember Henry Ford's famous advice: "If we had asked our customers what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." Customers are notoriously poor at articulating their true needs.

Before blindly working to meet their needs for a particular feature, spend time observing your customers and strive to understand the underlying issues or challenges leading to the request. Chance are, there’s a genuine need lurking somewhere under the surface request.

5. Will a customer have to change his/her operating processes to adopt this idea? While this alone is not an idea killer, beware of banking on ideas that require clients to quickly change behaviors. That almost never happens.

6. How will we evaluate whether this idea is successful or unsuccessful? Or, for longer range initiatives, how will we measure progress and know that the idea is on track to contribute? Establishing the criteria for success or failure helps identify whether something may just be an interesting experiment versus an initiative that quickly contributes to revenue and profits.

7. What is our time horizon for this idea? Well-managed firms treat ideas and projects like a portfolio of stocks. Some are intended to deliver results immediately and others require patience and nurturing. Beware of overloading the short-term portion of your portfolio and underfunding the longer-range initiatives.

8. How will our team members respond to this initiative being added to their “To Do” lists? Audible groans from the people responsible for the work is an indicator of potential overload. Be careful!

The Bottom Line for Now

In our fast-changing world, we are bombarded with the need to be agile and adaptable. The risk in all of this adaptability and agility is that we rationalize taking on too many ideas at any one time, starving all of them for the much-needed care and feeding. You most definitely want a culture that generates a lot of ideas. You also want to create a culture that optimizes the odds of your best ideas becoming successful in the market. Learning to say “No” is a critical part of success.