Here’s a baloney phrase: “There’s no such thing as a bad idea.” Sit in on any meeting—in any office, in any industry—and you’re bound to hear at least one. (And if it’s only one, consider yourself lucky.) Of course there are bad ideas. Yet the measure good boss is not how quickly abominable business ideas are tossed out the door but how efficiently they’re turned into solutions. Whether that means holding the offender’s hand through a brainstorming session, or deputizing outright to a more reliable team member, there are 15 tried-and-true methods for turning a bad idea into a gold mine. And for more great corporate advice, learn the 15 ways to triple your productivity every day.
Instead of shutting down a bad idea like a dictator, use the far more powerful method of consensus leadership to help create a more collaborative decision on the idea. Rather than giving the idea an up or down vote, help your team seek a set of solutions that everybody (or almost everybody) can get behind.
“The group setting also takes the sting out of shooting down their idea, and communicates to them that it is not the preferred strategy in a diplomatic manner,” says Bobbi Rebell, author of How to Be a Financial Grownup: Proven Advice from High Achievers on How to Live Your Dreams and Have Financial Freedom. “Very often when the majority of the group is moving in one direction on a project, the outlier will fall in line- even if they perceive their idea as better.”
This is neither trade-off nor unanimity, rather it’s coming up with a good strategy by weaving together the whole group’s key concerns and best opinions. That means the bad idea will likely drop off, but might also be adapted into a larger solution that benefits everyone.
On a similar note, it’s not impossible that what you view as a bad idea might be a workable idea from someone else’s perspective.
“Get second, third, and fourth opinions,” suggests Ajay Prasad, founder and president of digital marketing agency GMR Web Team. “Asking for feedback and advice of trusted colleague or employees will provide you with different perspectives that you can take into account and make the best decision. It never hurts to reach out for help, especially when you are really unsure of what to do.”
Similar to consensus-building, this will help your workers move toward a better solution as a team. And here’s what America’s fittest CEO has to say about creating a healthy work environment.
If a team member can’t seem to appreciate what it is the group, or the organization as a whole is trying to accomplish, assigning a mentor might be the move.
“If it is not appropriate to make the project a team effort, assigning a mentor who can tactfully guide them can be helpful,” says Rebell. “It’s also a good idea to require periodic check-ins to allow for course corrections before a project is complete.”
The mentor ensures the guy coming up with bad ideas understands the company culture and can offer advice and guidance to help his protégé get up to speed. Whether this serves as a short-term solution or a permanent program, it’s a great way to get those who are lagging to catch up. And here are some more great leadership strategies you should know.
Often a bad idea is rooted in a basic misunderstanding of the company’s or department’s overall vision. This might be a failure on the employee’s part, but it may also be due to company leadership failing to clearly outline that vision.
“Having a clear-cut vision and mission for the company will provide a framework upon which to test ideas out for effectiveness or ineffectiveness,” says Jacqui Barrett-Poindexter, owner of career consultancy CareerTrend. “If the idea doesn’t strongly support the vision and mission, then it should be nixed.” Now, if running a company has got you stressed, here’s how to deal with that at work.
A bad idea may also be rooted in a lack of information on the part of the employee. If a member of your team suggests a stinker of an idea, it may work best to open up the floor to questions, and give him the opportunity to ask more about what exactly the goals or details are for a particular project.
“Before sending them into retool mode, be sure to answer any questions the worker may have as to why their idea wasn’t a fit with the company’s vision/mission and if needed, provide them with a clear mission and vision in writing, from which to aim their idea,” says Barrett-Poindexter. “Follow this with a goal time-frame to submit a refreshed idea with a strategic plan and outcome that is clearly focused on the mission, vision and resources budget.” For more ways to run the best business possible, here’s how to find the perfect candidate for your next job opening.
On the other hand, it help for you as the boss to ask questions and delve into where the bad idea is coming from. It may be a misunderstanding or it may be coming from a place of creative problem solving that you just had not been considering.
“Using a coaching approach with your employees, colleagues or even your leader is a great way to really help people to think through their ideas and come up with the best possible solution for the organization and its customers,” says Carey-Ann Oestreicher, chief engagement officer for Potential Unlimited.
To understand the motive behind the idea, she suggests asking the employee the following questions: “What is the opportunity you have identified in the idea?” “What are the pitfalls?” “What makes the risk worth the reward?” “What other potential countermeasures did you consider if this idea fails?” “Why do you think this is the right idea to try?”
“The best way to both determine the viability of an idea and to correct course if it is a bad idea is through questions,” adds Michelle Tillis Lederman, author of Nail The Interview, Land The Job. “Oftentimes when we tell someone why the idea is bad, they get discouraged and give up. Instead, ask them how they would handle this aspect or issue that you realize is a problem for their idea.”
Instead, it might be worthwhile to find a way to come at the idea from a different direction. Maybe a suggestion doesn’t work as a customer service strategy, but could be effective as an internal program. Or an idea that would likely fail as a long-term branding campaign, might actually work for a more short-term program. See if there is a way to rethink the bad idea by coming at it from a different direction. And for more great leadership insights, here’s some wisdom from some successful startup founders.
Sometimes, changing the idea is not as important as changing its context. There is a decent chance that an employee suggesting a rotten idea is lost in the trees and can’t see the forest. Reframe the problem you are trying to solve and make it as simple as possible and they should hopefully correct course in the process.
“Is the plan overly complicated? If so, it’s probably a bad plan,” says Biren Bandara, CEO/founder of Leader School. “Overcomplicated plans with many moving parts have a higher risk of failure, especially if the mechanic of the plan isn’t clear.”
Often the best way to get a person to see the error of his ways is not to tell him it’s a bad idea, but let him see it himself.
“Ask them to draft up plans, and go into deep detail of how the execution of their idea would work.” says Valerie Streif, a senior advisor with career organization Mentat. “This allows them to realize on their own that it wasn’t a good idea without you needing to be the bad guy and shoot them down.”
Ideally, they will see where they’ve made a logically mistake and readjust their thinking quickly. If not, Streif suggests: “Be upfront and honest about why it’s not a good idea and explain your reasoning. This is your time to teach!”
Speaking of teaching, a bad idea can be a hugely valuable learning opportunity.
“Most people do not want to fail, and when they are putting forth an idea it is with the intention of being a productive part of the team,” says Irene Becker, founder and chief success officer of Just Coach It-The 3Q Edge, who runs the 3Q Leadership Blog. “Fear shuts down cognitive ability, creates disengagement and a myriad of problems that will ultimately undermine results.”
Instead of being annoyed at the bad idea, find a way to embrace it as a moment to review the company’s or projet’s big-picture goals.
We’ve already agreed that the phrase “there are no bad ideas” is nonsense. But what is closer to the truth is that there are no completely bad ideas. There’s a good chance that even the dumbest-seeming idea has some merit, if you dig into it a bit.
“I recommend they say, ‘I’m not sure about the idea as a whole but there is a good piece in there— I like X element of your suggestion. Let’s work to expand on that,’” says Frances Cole Jones, author of How to Wow: Proven Strategies for Selling Your (Brilliant) Self in any Situation and president at Cole Media Management. “Or, ‘I can’t support your idea as a whole but you do have a valid criticism. Do you have any other ideas regarding a potential solution?’”
Once you’ve pulled out what actually works in an idea, find a way to build on it or take it in a completely different direction. That kernel of quality might help pave the way to something much more valuable for the organization.
“Unworkable and ineffective ideas may not work in and of themselves, but, many times are the precursor to creating new and better ideas when brainstormed in a way that honors each and every person,” says Jeannette Seibly, PXT Select Authorized, Partner with Wiley, Profiles International. “Always build on ideas presented or you will lose people and their ‘good’ ideas.”
The strongest organizations are those that have incorporated a range of ideas and where decisions are held up for discussion and scrutiny.
“The best tactic to encourage staff to develop strong ideas is to make constructive dialogue and idea revision a building block of your organizational culture,” says Rita Santelli, president of Savvy Inc., who also teaches Innovation Leadership at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing of Continuing Studies. “Diversity of thought will help the team identify potential pitfalls and generate the needed fixes before the idea is implemented.” Support and encourage your team to conceptualize together, and embrace a range of different points of views.
Along the same lines, Santelli adds that, “it can actually be very difficult to identify a bad idea internally. When you are surrounded by your products, services, and coworkers all day, every day, you can find yourself in a ‘bubble of thought’ where a single perspective dominates. The best way to combat the “bubble” is to bring in as much diversity of thought as possible.”
The bad idea may have grown out of one of these “idea bubbles.”
On her blog, product discovery coach Teresa Torres offers her own suggestion for turning a bad idea into a good one: “The more you engage people in the idea generation and evaluation process, the more involved they are going to be in the outcomes. They now have skin in the game. If you think you have a hard time wrangling feedback and requests now, this process will only increase that volume. Remember, it’s worth it. More ideas, lead to better ideas.”
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