Get innovative ideas by asking for what you need.
“They’re just not thinking about the things that make a difference. I keep getting ideas about how to arrange the office when we’ve got big issues to deal with–like how we keep our best customers. How do I get the innovative ideas I need?”
Maya is the CEO of a rapidly growing, midsize engineering firm. I was facilitating a leadership development program for a group of senior executives when she asked her question.
She continued, “I hear you about closing the loop and responding when people share their ideas, but that will take way too much time if we don’t get focused.”
This is a common question when we talk about innovation. How do you get the innovative ideas you need without bogging down the process with trivial, misguided, or ill-conceived ideas?
For example, one client we worked with received hundreds of ideas every week from their front-line people. It was a challenge to process that quantity of ideas. What made it even more difficult is that they had already implemented many of the ideas. Many more had nothing to do with their number one “100%-focus-for-the-next-12 months” strategic priority.
How do you keep yourself from drowning in suggestions, but also get the innovative ideas you need?
The Goal Isn’t Enough
In Maya’s firm, the #1 strategic priority was clear: improve customer retention.
That’s good–great ideas start with focus. If you haven’t already clarified the MIT (Most Important Thing), do that first.
Once everyone is clear about what matters most, the next step is to ask for what you want.
This step frustrates many leaders, but it’s essential if you want to get the innovative ideas you need.
When I asked Maya if she had specifically asked her people to focus on ideas that will improve customer retention she said, “I guess I haven’t, really. I assumed they’d get that. We haven’t talked about anything else but keeping customers for months now.”
What Does Success Look Like?
The most important information you can give your team is: What will a successful idea do?
Take the time to think through your success criteria. For instance, in Maya’s firm will a successful idea:
- Improve customer retention by 5% across the board?
- By 10% of the top 25% of customers?
- Break even in the first year? Second year?
- How much can we invest?
- Will it solve a specific problem (eg: Our number one customer complaint is time-to-resolution. We need ideas to solve that by reducing the number of problems on the front end or to fix them faster.)
When you ask for ideas, don’t stop with a generic “We need ideas to keep our customers.”
You’ll get generic ideas.
The secret is specifically to ask for what you need: “Over the next month I’d like to get your ideas on how we can stop these three problems from happening … and how we can streamline our response times and take care of our customers faster.”
Or you might say, “We’re looking for ideas that will improve customer retention by 10% or more and will recoup their cost within 12 months–although six is better.”
Use Success Criteria to Get Innovative Ideas
There are several benefits when you define your success criteria.
First, you’ll get more of what you need. Think about the challenge of blank-page creativity: if I give you a blank piece of paper and ask you to write a short story, you might struggle. However, if I ask you to write a story about a significant event from your childhood where you learned that a person wasn’t who you thought they were, you could probably get started immediately.
Giving people clarity helps focus their thinking and make it easier for them to produce the innovative ideas you need.
The next benefit is that you filter out many of the trivial, misguided, or ill-conceived ideas. Often, when someone hasn’t thought through their idea, it’s because the person didn’t have all the information they needed.
Finally, thinking through your success criteria makes it easier to evaluate and choose the ideas you will implement.
When It Doesn’t Work
Even when you share the success criteria, you will still have people who share off-topic thoughts or haven’t thought it through.
When this happens, your success criteria make it easy to redirect them and invite them to think more strategically.
For example, when you get an off-topic idea you can’t put time into you might say: “I appreciate you thinking about this. Right now, our number one priority is to improve customer retention by eliminating these problems and streamline our response times. I’d love to get your thoughts on that.”
Or, if you get an on-topic idea that makes little sense: “Thanks for thinking about customer retention with us–I’m curious how you see your idea improving retention by 10% and recouping its costs over the next 6-12 months?”
They may respond with insights you hadn’t seen–great! Or they may acknowledge that they hadn’t thought it through. Again, you can invite them to continue thinking. Eg: “I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we can improve by 10% while breaking even this year.”
If you have an idea machine in the habit of lobbing “idea grenades” onto your desk, this will help them filter their own thinking and channel their creativity.
When you clarify what successful ideas will do, you will get more of them. We’d love to hear from you: leave us a comment and share your best strategy to get the innovative ideas you need.