Managing an innovation program, at scale, involves focusing a community of people on the organization’s biggest challenges and opportunities, engaging with ideas and feedback, aligning the appropriate people best positioned to inform decisions, and most importantly, making transparent decisions. This article gives some insight into the decision-making process, specifically regarding the power of declining ideas. An organization is inherently constrained, and is thus limited in action. Declining ideas is therefore necessary, and when done transparently, can provide the fuel for ongoing engagement with the program.
Many people avoid saying “no.” We strive to please our peers and our employees, and it’s often easier to say yes or ignore a request in order to avoid conflict. But when it comes to sustaining an innovation program, saying “no” is a necessary and powerful force.
Two of the important purposes of an innovation program are to orient participants around the key challenges and opportunities facing the organization, and to give a voice to all members of an organization. And saying “no” is positive step towards both of these objectives.
First, on giving program participants a voice, employment surveys consistently show that one of the things employees want most from their employers is for their ideas to be listened to. Employees are realistic. They understand the constraints facing their organization—time, people, money and competitive pressures. They want their voices to be heard; they want to know that the company they work for values their feedback. Management saying “no” is in line with this objective. Because “no” is a part of a conversation, “no” means someone is listening. Contrast this with the traditional “email inbox for receiving employee suggestions”—the anti-conversation. Employees are unsure whether anyone is listening to their ideas; they live in a void, a black box.
There’s one important part of saying “no” to someone’s idea, though. Context is everything. People want their ideas to be listened to, but implicit in that statement is that they’re given a fair shake. If that “no” comes with a thoughtful reasoning as to why the idea won’t be presently acted upon and realized—usually citing one of those constraints above—nine times out of ten the person will accept the outcome. People understand constraints. What they want is a conversation. To be listened to.
A Lean Innovation Program
As for orienting people around key challenges and opportunities facing the organization, “no” is the fuel, the necessary byproduct for finding the key, actionable “yeses.” At IdeaPlace, we’ve come to think of running an innovation program as similar to the philosophy behind Lean Startup. If you’re unfamiliar with Lean Startup thinking, a simple summary is that in organizations operating under extreme uncertainty (a “startup”), the most efficient and productive activity that people should be doing is spending the least amount of energy (time & money) to validate a hypothesis. And only after the hypothesis is validated should additional energy be devoted to turning that hypothesis into reality.
As an example, let’s say your business plan calls for bottling Hudson River water (hopefully at the source!) and selling this bottled water at a premium. Before you go and invest in branding, acquiring a bottling facility and spending lots of money on developing this concept, you should first test your hypothesis that people not only desire Hudson River water, but are willing to pay a premium for it. And guess what you should do if you learn that people will not go for your idea? Stop, and pivot.
The outcome of testing the hypothesis? A “yes” or a “no.”
An innovation program is similar, where the objective is to spend the least amount of energy (time and money) to invalidate an idea. Let’s say you’ve just run a Challenge which generated 100 ideas. Great, now how can we quickly get to the 80 “nos,” so we can spend serious time building a business case for the remaining 20 ideas? And of those 20 that we continue to develop, what else can we ask about them to find the other “nos”; leaving us with a handful a great, actionable ideas that move the organization forward?
Quickly finding the 95 or so “nos” and 5 “yeses” should be viewed as a success. Achieving the goal of finding the small percentage of actionable, value-creating ideas means there’s going to be a lot of “nos” along the way. That’s not only OK, it’s necessary.
There’s also a funny thing about “nos” in an innovation program. Often they represent the fitness of the idea to the current environment. And as that environment changes, that “no” can easily turn into a “yes.” Picture a wildly popular idea shared in a bike company’s innovation program to change the bike frame from steel to a new type of carbon just invented by a supplier. And in line with Lean thinking, each hypothesis along the way has been validated. It’s looking like a “yes.” But then the marketing team discovers, through customer research, that the market won’t presently bear the additional $81 in cost that the company would have to add to the frame to switch materials. People want lighter bike frames, but aren’t willing to pay nearly that much for them. So true to form, they spent the least amount of energy to find that “no” before investing in realizing the idea.
But nine months have passed and now the bike company can procure the carbon material while only adding $14 to the cost of each frame. Same idea, different environment. As time passes, the environment changes and old constraints are lifted, and the “no” magically transforms into a “yes.”
As you consider ideas for your business, don’t be afraid to say “no.” A “no” might just help you spot your next big “yes.”