Have too many ideas? Blame your CEO!

downloadIn an elegant piece in Harvard Business Review, Whitney Johnson points to a problem that many innovative companies face: an excess of good ideas. Obviously, only a fraction of them can be pursued. But what are we going to do with those innovators whose ideas weren’t selected for implementation? How shall we prevent them from growing “angry, jealous, or bitter” (in Whitney Johnson’s words)? How shall we protect the corporate innovation culture from being poisoned by the residual resentment?

Whitney Johnson suggests two approaches. The first, conventional, is to acknowledge the input of the people whose ideas were rejected and then engage them in the implementation of selected ones. The second, somewhat radical, is to terminate the employment of those who have failed to overcome bad feelings after their rejection.

Wow! For a company that generates many ideas that could lead to a lot of terminations.

I feel amazed with how many people sincerely believe that the “we-have-too-many-good-ideas” syndrome is incumbent on the corporate innovation process. It is not. The “excess of good ideas” only happens when companies adopt the bottom-up model of corporate innovation. In this model, the focus is on ideas, which are collected on the ground and then channeled upward. I already wrote about serious flaws of the bottom-up model of innovation and don’t want to repeat these arguments here. Suffice is to say that this approach will serve only mature (innovation-wise) organizations; for organizations with a shorter history of innovation programs–and these are still in majority today–the bottom-up model of innovation doesn’t work.

What is the alternative? The alternative is the top-down approach. In the top-down model of innovation, the focus is on problems. The company’s leadership formulates problems that are strategic to the organization and then moves them down the ladder for employees to generate solutions to these problems. Again, I refer the readers to my previous post describing the benefits of the top-down model. The important point here is that companies practicing this approach don’t suffer from “too many ideas” because having many good solutions to a limited number of important problems is a blessing, not a curse. Equally important–and very relevant to what Whitney Johnson’s talking about–is that giving specific feedback to the employees about the value of their solutions is much less “toxic” than explaining to them why their ideas were rejected. Regardless of whether an employee “wins” or “loses” in a solution contest, he or she feels engaged and appreciated.

Why then does the bottom-up model still remain so widespread? Unfortunately, sticking to it allows the company’s executive leadership adopt a hands-off approach to the innovation process. It’s so easy to announce an open season for ideas and then claim that the collective wisdom of the whole organization is now harnessed. But it takes time and effort to formulate the company’s innovation strategy, align it with the corporate strategic goals, identify key problems to be solved and articulate criteria of successful solutions. So the “too-many-ideas” problem is not an inevitable toxic by-product of the innovation process, as Whitney Johnson wants us to believe; it is a result of a wrong innovation strategy.

Or let me put it differently. Does your company struggle with the excess of good ideas? Blame your CEO.

 Image credit: www.businessinsider.com

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is the Founder of (WoC)2, an innovation consultancy that helps organizations extract maximum value from the wisdom of crowds by coordinated use of internal and external crowdsourcing.
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16 Responses to Have too many ideas? Blame your CEO!

  1. Brendan Dunphy says:

    Staff & management abhor a vacumn Eugene and unfortunatly most companies lack the BIG idea that focuses and unites. Mass ideation is too often a poor alternative to a compelling strategy well communicated. Best as always, B.

    • Thanks Brandan! Exactly my thoughts. I’d say that the less the C-floor takes active part in innovation programs, the higher chance these programs will be reduced to a series of “idea contests.” Saw this many times, unfortunately.

  2. Stefan says:

    Hi Eugene,
    Fully agree with what you wrote about the bottom up ideation with campaigns and idea boxes.
    As a counter measure (and in the lack of top-down innovation), what do you think about “Problem Boxes”?
    The employees to collect issues that are preventing them from providing their best service. Like: slow processes, missing features, customer complaints, etc. Without suggesting a solution.
    The other employees vote for the importance of the problem. At the end, we will have a list of issues sorted by importance, and the whole company could be looking for a solution.
    The people will be more open to voting for common problems rather than voting for other’s solution.
    What do you think about such approach?


    • Hi Stefan,

      Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment. I definitely like the idea of a “Problem Box.” It gives me a flavor of Toyota’s continuous improvement process.

      I’m not against the bottom-up approach as such. The process that you describe, if managed properly, could be very effective, however “tactical” in scope. The principal point here is that the employees clearly understand what represents “improvement” in their particular case and for the company in general. And this is where the executive leadership is so important. The problem with innovation comes not from the lack of ideas or their excess, but rather from a mismatch of with what is proposed from the bottom (“ideas”) and what is needed for the company (“problems”). Remove this mismatch–i.e. align problems with solutions–and you give innovation in your company a great boost. Because with a proper alignment, it doesn’t really matter which “box” (“Suggestion” or “Problem”) you’re using.


  3. Stefan says:

    Thank you, Eugene.
    In general I agree with this mismatch.
    But, if you consider the “shooting the messenger” practiced in the big organizations, and
    “- Don’t come to me with a problem, come with a solution!” style,
    do you think the top management searches and receives reliable information about the real problems and opportunities in their companies?
    I think this is one of the roots of the mismatch. Actually maybe these internal practices separate the innovative companies from those that “has too many ideas”?

    Best regards,

    • Exactly, Stefan!

      Large organizations worship efficiency, which implies precision and execution. “Don’t come to me with a problem…” is a flagship of this approach.

      And you’re right on point: if a company’s top management has no time–or thinks it’s unimportant–to define key strategic problems and then transform them into viable innovation programs…well, too bad for the company. After all, there are companies that succeed and there are companies that fail.


  4. Stefan says:

    Thank you, Eugene.
    Great points!
    — Stefan

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