Let me kill your best idea

Mar 30 2005 by Max McKeown Print This Article

Ever had an idea? Have you experienced that eureka moment? Or maybe something smaller like discovering a shortcut to work? Or a cooler-than-cool idea (like ZOPA.COM) putting people with cash to lend together with people who need cash without a bank?

Ever had an idea rejected? Have you ever gained an insight that might make a difference but given up because the prospect of jumping through corporate hoops was too depressing?

Ideas remind me of people. They are fragile and yet hardy. They can mean the world or nothing at all. One kind of person leaving can break your heart while another kind of person, the extreme poor, can die 30,000 times a day and not even be noticed.

Ideas, like people, always have parents although, unlike you and me, for the moment, they have both polygamous progenitors and multi-sourced deoxyribonucleic acid of their own. These are the threads of DNA that lead to and emerge from an individual idea to form the protein of progress.

Progress interests me even more than ideas. It's so infinite, so stubbornly haphazard, easily deterred in days and weeks and so relentless over decades and centuries. And here I talk of progress synonymous with wellbeing and progress independent of it. The progress of vaccination and that of credit card unlimited stress filled lives.

Here, I mean movement. I want to know "how to speed up the movement forward" and how to "shape forward movement toward our desired future".

Ideas are simply judged by too few people too far away from the users of the idea.

There are so many ways of killing our best ideas. One of the problems with the current way in which ideas are treated is that they are simply judged by too few people too far away from the users of the idea.

And when they transform into products, processes, and policy papers the reverse is usually true - they are judged by too many people (the market) without an opportunity to be improved by those very same people.

Equally damaging is the way that successful organisations (those who survive!) become trapped in their own success so that fewer think & more just do whatever it was that worked in the past - with the result that fewer and fewer ideas get from the centre of the organisation to be implemented.

Greek philosophers, of the upper island class, conceived of the telescope (idea 1) but were unable to bring it to life because they didn't rub shoulders with the artisans who had the glass manufacturing ability (idea 2).

Human kind had to wait until 1608 for a trio of glass polishers, Lippershey, Jansen and Matius to bring the telescope to life and, because he found out about it almost immediately, for only another year for Galileo to build the first astronomical telescope - only to have his discoveries judged by the church powers to be blasphemous thus slowing progress down.

To produce a truly original idea is perhaps neither feasible nor desirable. What would you do with such a thing? Nothing - because the truly original, idée sans parents, is a something which has no context and is, as result, unusable until it is no longer in the 'never seen anything like it' category. Of what earthly use was Da Vinci's helicopter?

Ideas born out of step with their time, too early to be used, tend to be forgotten since they are solutions looking for both problems AND complimentary solutions that are not immediately available to the idea originator. If they are not stored they will cease to be available and if they are not shared and indexed then they will rely only on the intrinsically undependable favours of mademoiselle chance.

One of my research questions to organisations is "if someone on the front line of your organisation has an idea what happens to it? And what would have to happen to it for it to be of value to your organisation?"

And the response is often something like, "well they give it to their supervisor who decides whether to pass it on or not", who then gives it to the next level above, and so the filtering process goes until a small number of ideas get shown to the people at the top.

So which ideas get through? Ideas that managers believe will be accepted – which are often not the good ideas, the transformational ideas, or the ideas that inspire the rest of the company.

I have never come across anyone even close to being satisfied with the way that ideas are treated.

Nevertheless there are examples that are instructive. The Toyota way is an example of an organisation improving its treatment of ideas. The revival of Nissan is another. The car firm's Brazilian-born CEO, Goshn San, has made his career on his concept of 'active listening' and belief that "the ideas necessary to turn around any company already exist in that company".

Then there is Google and it's legendary, or perhaps even mythical, day-per-week of thinking time given to employees allied to a searchable (of course!) database of previously-suggested ideas - and of course their willingness to simply expose the market to ideas in an unfinished or 'beta' state.

The technology (the how to) of language speeds up and expands the human thinking process. And after spoken, written, printed, and transmitted we know have at our disposal the internet's unrivalled connecting capability to enable lonely ideas together with distant lifelong partners. Distance, cost of transaction, and difficulty of searching, are all overcome in a mix that led a majority of Noble prize winners to recently vote it the greatest productivity tool of all time.

The internet has reduced barriers to creating a market of ideas in which there is no friction between origination and application. Additionally it has proved a tutor for cultural change. Those organisations and nations who attempt to pick up one end of the net stick (paperless message relay and electronic information) without picking up the other (innate democracy, transparency, interconnectivity, and meritocracy) soon find that one end does not work without the other.

The opportunity is for us to stop fighting the benefits and instead figure out what it would take to create internet tools that harness its characteristics. We should build markets of ideas that put resource where resources deserve to go based on open debate and proportionate to the desires of the people within the market.

What should such a market of ideas look like? Instructive concepts exist in many places:

Ordinary genius: Marketocracy.com, where it turns out that ordinary people can outperform the stock markets and brokers by knowing about the value of companies that help them do what they like to do.

Markets have been used to predict terrorist attacks, with the Pentagon sponsored 'Policy Analysis Market' (shut down because a couple of senators found it morally repugnant to pay winners) and to predict the failure of companies (luckedcompany.com) with great success.

If successful elsewhere, why not use markets to decide the relative merits and resource allocation of your organisations ideas?

Reputation management: - Ebay.com is the fastest revenue growth company in history. It simply connects buyers and sellers with the whole process marshalled by a feedback system that allows reputation to be open, vivid, and expressed as a percentage.

Imagine what would happen if all the people in your company received and gave feedback on their own interactions or on their own ideas?

Would Sony have been allowed to stubbornly ignore MP3 if all their 162,000 employees had a say? Surely one of them must have found the absence frustrating. Someone must have been buying those ipods among so many people!

Get what you give: The open source community operates, broadly, on a get what you give basis. You put more in to get more out. Your reputation and your expertise expand to the extent that your work gains that reputation and expertise. No back door routes to promotion for people whose only efforts have been to get promoted.

It is only in this kind of world that a 16 year old, Blake Ross, meets a New Zealander online and ends up in charge of an internet browser software project – Firefox - that takes 10 per cent of market share from Microsoft in 6 months.

Waste not want not: Wiki.org, a volunteer-created encyclopaedia more popular than brittanica.com, has a whole publicly-available section devoted to ideas for improving itself given by readers and enthusiasts.

They also have a section full of rejected ideas with the reasons for their rejection and an invite to use the ideas or resubmit.

What would happen if Coca-Cola, or the Postal Service, or your Government had such a system that openly showed what had been tried, what had been put forward and what had been put to one side? Would new ideas be left again and again while old ideas failed to give profitable results if it was clear what had been worked and what had not yet been attempted?

Big brain, little brain: One of the many ratios calculated to show the effectiveness of an organisation is revenue per employee. In 2003, for example, Wal-Mart, the World's largest company, had revenues of $174,000 per person directly employed.

But Wal-Mart's front line employees have no authority or resources to improve profitability via innovation so their only contribution to increasing profitability is in accepting low wages, unpaid overtime, and unpaid breaks.

What would happen if the funds for improvements were divided up per employee so that each could invest time and money in areas that would assist the company instead? This would increase the size of Wal-Mart's collective brain and enable it to think, rather than squeeze, its way to more profit.

I foresee an evolution of such concepts that will allow ideas from anywhere and anybody in the world to be connected to the people, ideas, and resources those ideas need to reach their potential.

This will be a market of ideas that gives people a reason to engage in the hard emotional and physical work of getting an idea from the ethereal and undeveloped to the practical and complete.

And then, finally, people will be allowed to personally create sufficient wealth to meet their needs and those of their societies.

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.