How leaders make the best ideas work

How Leaders Make the Best Ideas Work

Do you have a plan to make the best ideas work?

Joe has a new idea. The idea isn’t perfect, but with a tweak or two, it just might solve that big problem that’s driving everyone nuts.

What does Joe do next?

If Joe is like half of the people in our research, you’ll never hear about it because he assumes no one will do anything with it.

Good ideas breed more good ideas. When people see a clear path from idea sharing to implementation, they’ll be much more likely to speak up.

On your team, how easy is it for people to bring forward their best ideas?

A Quick “Make the Best Ideas Work” Process Check

How would Joe’s idea flow on your team?

Take a minute to think about this “idea path.”

How does Joe know it’s an idea with potential? Have you defined criteria for what a great idea will do for your customers or the team? If not, that’s worth some brainstorming at your next team meeting.

Once Joe determines that his idea is worth sharing, what would he do next? Would he:

  • Talk to someone
  • Fill out a card
  • Enter it in a database
  • Schedule a meeting
  • Something else?

Then what?

We invite you to write down each step Joe would take – including other people’s activity necessary to implement the idea. Who would need to authorize it? What levels of approval do different ideas require? How long would each step take?

Be honest with how things work in your organization (not how you’d like them to work).

As you review the process you just outlined, ask the following questions:

  • Do you have a coherent plan or are there gaps you can address?
  • How long would it take from the time Joe shared his idea to the time a pilot project happened?
  • What feedback loops are in place to help Joe improve the idea and make it viable?
  • As the revised idea rolls out, would Joe stay involved? If so, how?
  • How would you recognize Joe and thank him in a meaningful way?

As a leadership team (or by yourself if you’ve done this one alone), review your answers to the last four questions and ask yourself: If you were a front-line team member, would it be worth your time and energy to think of solutions and new ideas (much less to share them)?

If your answer is “No”, where can you make changes to improve the process, remove barriers, and increase recognition?

If your answer is “Yes,” but ideas aren’t moving to implementation, ask your team to do this exercise. It’s a great way to check for understanding to see if they’ve got the process and know what to do.

As you review their answers, look for these common barriers to action. Do they:

  • Know what successful ideas look like?
  • Know what to do with an idea that might work, but isn’t perfect?
  • Have a realistic understanding of the timeframe involved?
  • Understand why they need certain approvals?

Your Idea Path

Teams that consistently improve don’t leave the creativity to chance. They have an intentional plan to find good ideas, test, refine, share, and encourage problem-solving.

You can download this free Idea Path pdf to help you, your colleagues, and your team think through how you help ideas move from concept to action.

Your Turn

We’d love to hear from you – what is your best practice to make your team’s best ideas work?

What were they thinking?

What To Do When “What Were They Thinking?”

When you wonder what they were thinking – dig deeper.

Has this happened to you? You walk by your team and see something different. Not, “Oh-that’s-cool” different, but “What were they thinking?” different.

What do you do?

When I was twelve years old, I found myself on the receiving end of “What were you thinking?”

I was a Boy Scout on a camping trip. My friends and I had carefully planned a menu and bought groceries, but now we were struggling to cook breakfast.

That’s when Bud, our adult leader, walked by. He stopped, looked at our frying pan, arched an eyebrow, and asked, “What are you making?”

We held up the pan of blue-green gelatinous charred mess. “Blueberry pancakes?”

I’ve never forgotten what Bud did next.

He crouched down next to the fire with us. “Well, let’s see what we have here.”

We explained our concoction. It was autumn and blueberries weren’t in season. So, we’d bought the next best alternative: blueberry pie filling.

We substituted a cup of pie filling for a cup of fresh blueberries.

It doesn’t work that way. The pie filling added more liquid and sugar to the batter than plain blueberries. Not knowing any better, we mixed it up, poured it in the pan, and watched it burn as we poked it with a spatula.

what were they thinking campfire

Bud saw what had happened, explained the problem, and asked, “So if you’ve got too much liquid in your batter, what do you need to do?”

He coached us through adding more dry ingredients until we had the right consistency. Then he helped us cook the resulting “pancake.” The texture still wasn’t right. They didn’t make nice neat circles. And they turned a strange color–somewhere between forest green and steel gray.

But the taste–heavenly! No syrup required.

With Bud’s help, we’d invented a new breakfast delicacy: The Slimer.

For years to come, Slimers were a staple of our camping trips – even when fresh blueberries came back in season, we stuck with our version. As an adult, I’ve even made them a few times on family camping trips.

When You Wonder “What Were They Thinking?”

When you see something that makes little sense, it’s normal to feel frustrated, concerned, or even angry. Your team should know better, right?

But that moment of exasperation is also an opportunity.

What you saw could be:

  • A cool new micro-innovation
  • A good idea that needs refinement
  • A lack of understanding
  • Ignorance of critical rules or process
  • They weren’t thinking at all

These are opportunities to improve. Your people can learn. You can improve your processes. You can leverage new ideas.

But it’s easy to miss these opportunities if you react with frustration. If Bud had shaken his head at our slimy mess and told us to cook eggs like the other kids, we would have missed out on Slimers.

What To Do When “What Were They Thinking?”

To take advantage of these moments and identify the opportunity, use Bud’s curiosity. Approach the team with, “Well, let’s see what we have here?”

A common reason people make “What were they thinking?” mistakes is lack of clarity. They don’t know where procedures are mandatory or where they should make their own decisions. Your genuine curiosity will uncover these gaps. Now you can fix your training or communication.

They may not know how to implement a good idea. You can use the 9 What’s Coaching method to help them identify goals and potential solutions.

If they weren’t thinking at all, now you know. Is this an opportunity to help your team member grow or a sign that the person is a poor fit for this role?

And often, “What were they thinking?” moments reveal a new approach.

Take the time to understand why they did what they did and you might just uncover the key to better customer service or employee engagement. Help them refine the idea and think about how they can share it with other teams.

Your Turn

The next time you wonder “What were they thinking?” take a moment to find out. The answer will always help you move your team forward.

Leave us a comment and share one of your favorite “What were they thinking?” moments or a leadership approach that works well for you when you see something you don’t understand.

These might interest you:

Creative commons Facepalm by Alex E. Proimos

Creative commons Campfire Coffee by jcmelonif

a remarkably easy way to get better customer feedback

A Remarkably Easy Way to Get Better Customer Feedback

Do you have a good way to tap into the customer feedback your employees are hearing every day?

Are your frontline employees trained and equipt to be true customer advocates?

Do they feel like their voice is being heard?

If you’ve been following our blog for a while, you know that David and I are in the middle of in-depth research on courageous cultures, which puts us on high alert for best practices in problem-solving, micro-innovation and customer advocacy.

So when we were in Nashville for a keynote, we met up with Nate Brown Founder of the CX Accelerator Lab, a really cool, free slack community of customer experience professionals.

He had such a perfect example of a micro-innovation that taps into customer feedback. I couldn’t wait for our book to be published to share.

I’m giving you a sneak peek because I think you could benefit from this Do It Yourself, Voice of the Customer idea right now!

He tells the story better than I can. Watch how he uses a simple USB web key button to empower employees to give real-time customer feedback. And then, he integrates it with other Voice of the Customer data.

Nate says they now have more and better quality customer feedback than ever before. Employees are more engaged in the process and interested in the outcomes.

That’s the power of micro-innovation and customer advocacy.

Why the Button Works for Better Customer Feedback

Nate shared why the CX Magic button works like magic on the CX Accelerator blog.

Omni-channel – The button works for any and all types of feedback coming in.  This could be a phone call to support, an email, a conversation at a trade show, an executive seated next to a customer on a plane, a social media post, or just about anything else.  The simplicity of it makes this level of flexibility possible.

A Tangible Reminder – You may already be thinking, “What’s the point of the button?  Why not just have everyone bookmark the feedback form?”  If you take a quick look at all the dozens of sites you currently have bookmarked, the answer will be clear.  Having a physical button right there in front of you sets this program apart from the everyday noise.  We literally bought buttons that FLASH!  There is power in having a constant visual reminder of this great channel that has been created to enhance the Customer Experience.

Extreme Ease of Use – From the very beginning, we designed the program to be remarkably easy for the employee entering the feedback.  Even small barriers to the process of entering feedback will result in dramatically reduced participation.  Make it a quick, rewarding experience for all involved.  And of course…don’t forget to close the loop to earn credibility!

Not Just For Customers – The form you create can have a tab for employee feedback as well.  Give your people a channel to voice any hurdles they may encounter while delivering outstanding CX.  This is sure to have a positive impact on your CES (customer effort score) both internally and externally.

But It Could Be For Customers! – Talk about an amazing technique to blow your VIP customers away…give them a button of their own.  Let them know that this is generally reserved for employees only, but you value their feedback so much that you’d like for them to have one.  I can’t imagine a better way to transform a simple piece of plastic into a life-long loyalty enhancer!

You can hear more from Nate and his magic button in his interview on the Voices of CX Podcast

Your turn.

Nate Brown, Karin Hurt, David DyeDo you have micro-innovation that’s making a difference for you and your team? How do you help your employees become better customer advocates? We would love to hear your story (and perhaps even include it in our next book.) Leave a comment here, or reach out to us at

how to respond when you can't use an idea

How to Respond When You Can’t Use an Idea

When You Can’t Use an Idea, Pivot to Get More Ideas

“I need people to think.” Mattias, the CEO of a mid-sized human service provider, leaned back in his chair and sighed. “They have all kinds of ideas that just don’t work. The market’s changing and it’s like no one gets it. I hear you, I should listen, but what do I do when I can’t use an idea?”

Have you ever been in Mattias’s shoes? Your team has all kinds of ideas, but they’re ill-informed, off-target, or are just bad (it’s okay–just between us, we know it may have been a bad idea.)

The problem when you can’t use an idea because it’s bad or won’t work is that it’s often the first idea someone has. If you respond poorly to the idea you can’t use, you won’t get the ideas you can use.

This was Mattias’s problem. When people brought him an imperfect idea, he would get frustrated, tell them why it wouldn’t work and shoo them out of his office. They never came back.

Six Ways to Respond When You Can’t Use An Idea

1. Say Thank You

You get more of what you encourage and celebrate, less of what you criticize or ignore. If you want people thinking more deeply, thank them for it (even if it’s not quite as deep as you would have liked.)

Eg: “Thank you for taking the time to think about what would create a better experience for our customer. I really appreciate you putting your thoughts together and thinking deeply about this.”

2. Explain What Happened

Share the process. If you were able to trial their idea, focus-group it, or do anything with it, let them know what happened. What problems did it run into? Were there competing priorities? Did the solution break down or prove impractical during testing? Take a few seconds to respond and close the loop. It will energize the person who shared their idea–even if you couldn’t use it.

3. Clarify Your Focus

When you consistently get ideas that are off target or don’t support strategic priorities, it’s a sure sign that you haven’t communicated those priorities clearly. Clarify the answers to these questions:

  • What matters most right now?
  • What ideas will help most?
  • What will good ideas achieve when you put them to work?

Eg: “Our priority for the next quarter is to achieve 100% on-time delivery. We need ideas about how we speed up our QA process without compromising quality along with suggestions to decrease order assignment times.”

Use 5×5 communication when it’s important – share key messages five times, five different ways.

4. Ask How It Works

If you’ve shared the focus, checked for understanding, and someone brings you an idea that seems way off target, resist the urge to chastise them. Instead, use it as an opportunity for a micro-coaching session. Ask them how their idea will help achieve the goal. Taking a moment to be curious can help uncover great ideas or help a team member understand what a great idea looks like.

Eg: “Thanks for thinking about this with us. Can you walk me through how your idea would help us achieve 100% on-time delivery?”

You’ll get different answers to this question. Some will say, “Oh, I hadn’t really thought it through.” In which case you can reply “I’d love to get your thoughts one you’ve had a chance to think it through.”

At other times, they might surprise you with a linkage or explanation that you didn’t see.

5. Share Information

When you can’t use an idea, the problem might be that the person doesn’t have enough information to make a good suggestion. What information can you add that will help them think more deeply about the issue?

Do they need budget data or to better understand how their work fits into the bigger picture? Maybe they need comparative data from other departments or process.

Give them the information they need to think more strategically.

6. Invite More Ideas

Once you’ve clarified the focus and given them more information, invite them to keep thinking and to share what they come up with.

Eg: “Thanks for thinking about this with us. We tried a similar idea last year and ran into a problem – the QA team wasn’t learning about projects with enough lead time. If you have thoughts about a way to implement your suggestion and solve the lead time issue, I’d love to hear what you come up with.”

Your Turn

When you get an idea you can’t use, it’s an opportunity to help people think more deeply and to get even better thoughts. Leave a comment and share your best suggestion for how to respond when you get an idea you can’t use.

Courageous Cultures survey

how to get your boss excited about your new idea

How to Get Your Boss Excited About Your Idea

You’ve got a great idea you just know will improve the business. How do you get your boss excited? Okay, let’s be real, not just excited, but as excited as you are?

7 Ways to Get Your Boss Excited About Your Great Idea

Your boss has a lot going on. How do you make your great idea stand out? It starts here.

1. Rock your day job.

As executives, we would frequently hold skip level meetings to uncover new ideas for improving the customer and employee experience. Often we would run into an employee with lots of ideas who was frustrated because his boss never let him work on them. But when we would question their manager about this, we’d hear an exasperated sigh “He can’t get his regular work done.” Or, “Her performance scorecard is in the bottom 10% of the team. I need her focused there.”

If you want your boss to take your new ideas seriously, be sure you’re delivering well on the fundamentals.

2. Align your idea with strategic priorities.

One of our clients has a fantastic formalized system to encourage employees to share ideas. There is no shortage of opportunities for people to speak up and share their great ideas. In fact, there are so many ideas competing for attention, there are many good ones that just get lost in the sauce. Do you know which ideas get noticed and immediately implemented? The ones aligned with the company’s MIT (Most Important Thing) strategic priorities. If you want to get your boss excited about your great idea, be sure she thinks it will excite her boss.

3. Be able to share a clear benefit statement (and be able to pass the red-face test – that the main person who will benefit is not you.)

Your boss will hear ideas that will make your job easier, but the best ideas have a bigger impact.  Any manager who’s been around the block a few times can smell an empire-building stunt or a slick move that makes your job easier (while leaving your peers to pick up the slack).

Be able to articulate your idea in terms of clear benefits statements. For example:

  • This will reduce customer wait time by five minutes.
  • This will increase cross-functional collaboration and enable us to more quickly identify best practices.
  • This IT enhancement will eliminate 13% of compliance-related human error.
  • Boss, this will make your job easier by…

4. Show the immediate win.

Sure, the 5-year impact will interest your boss, but they’re likely to get even more excited if you can show a proof-of-concept right away. Consider a pilot to showcase an immediate impact and then do the math of how that impact would scale.

5. Articulate the risks and expected challenges.

If you want your boss to take your idea seriously, spend at least as much time thinking about why your idea might not work as how it will. One of our favorite techniques is to ask trusted advisors, “Tell me honestly, why do you think this idea might not work?” Then address each of these challenges head-on, as you’re making your pitch. Explain how you’re working to prevent the issue or reduce the risk.

We love Kim Kaupe’s idea in the Muse’s How to Pitch an Idea to your Boss to prepare three lists of 3s:

Bring your supervisor three lists of three items each to pitch a new project idea. The first list should include three reasons why this project would benefit the company, the second three reasons why you’re perfect to lead the project, and the last should be the three obstacles you see getting in your way and how you would handle them. These lists display planning, forward thinking, and ambition! —Kim KaupeZinePak

6. Have a solid execution strategy.

 “Everyone who’s taken a shower has had a great idea. It’s the person who gets out of the shower, dries off and does something about it who makes a difference.” -Nolan Bushnell, Founder of Atari

Bosses lose enthusiasm for idea people with no action. Don’t dump your idea on them; take responsibility for how it can happen and then…

7. Share your role in making this happen.

If you’ve got a great idea, don’t just bring a plan. Be willing to put skin in the game to ensure it will happen. Assuming you’ve taken care of #1, saying “Here’s exactly what needs to happen, and here’s how I see my role and what I can do to help” is a great way to get your boss excited.

See also: The Delicate Art of Persuading Your Boss

How to Encourage More Micro-Innovation on Your Team

Are you looking for ways to uncover more micro-innovation on your team?

Is your team a bit stuck? Stuck doing things the way they’ve always done them?  Stuck with workarounds to systems that no longer work? Stuck in silos, unaware that there’s a best practice right around the corner that would make their work easier?

Sounds like it’s time to encourage micro-innovation — helping your team to find small ways to make things better, for themselves and for their customers.

3 Ways to Encourage More Micro-Innovation on Your Team

1. Hold a Work-Around, Work-Out Week

We were working on 2019 strategic planning with a group of high-performing managers. Cedric raised his hand, “How many of your people spend a stupid amount of time on workarounds because of outdated systems or processes?” Every hand in the room went up.

“When’s the last time you really looked at who is doing what and why this is happening?” Most eyes drifted down to avoid what Cedric knew was a rhetorical question.

“What would happen if we identified all the workarounds that are frustrating our teams, and asked them to help prioritize and brainstorm more permanent solutions?”

Brilliant. The Workaround, Workout Week was born.

For those of you who’ve read our book Winning Well, think confidence bursts (click and scroll down) for micro-innovation.

How to hold a workaround, work-out week
  1. THE WEEK BEFORE: Create a ruckus to get people excited about identifying workarounds that need to go. Advertise the week and add fun to the mix. Signs? Themed breakfasts? Balloons? Cube-top reminders?  The point is to encourage every member of your team to bring forward all the workarounds they can.
  2. MONDAY: Make it easy to anonymously submit the workarounds. Provide amnesty if a well-intentioned workaround breaks a rule. The point is to get a clear sense of how your people are actually getting work done in your organization and figure out if there’s a better way.
  3. TUESDAY: Give your team time to prioritize the list by impact and ease of fix.
  4. WEDNESDAY-THURSDAY: Invite your team to submit their best micro-innovations for a more permanent solution.
  5. FRIDAY: Meet again to discuss best ideas (invite key stakeholders as appropriate), plan for next steps, and recognize and celebrate your micro-innovators who came up with solutions.
2. Use Micro-Engagement to Identify Micro-Innovation

Make it easy for your team to solicit their best ideas by asking simple questions.

  • What’s your best idea for improving the customer experience?
  • What’s the simplest idea you have to make your job easier?
  • What’s the best idea you’ve heard in a long time around here?

You can ask a question a week via email or text. Some of our clients have also asked us to weave such questions into their micro-learning programs, texting a question a week to encourage micro-innovation.

3. Head out on Curiosity Tour

Managing by walking around can mean lots of things. When’s the last time you just starting walking for a curiosity tour … searching for best practices and micro-innovation?

See more here.

Your Turn (Please help)

We are neck-deep in research for our next book and are looking for more best practices for encouraging micro-innovation and front-line problem-solving. Please leave a comment or drop us a note at and share your best practice.