Your Ideas Won’t Build Themselves

We work with many small organizations that want to grow their business and impact. We also work with many large organizations that want to act smaller. From this perch, we see not only the differences between big and small, but also the similarities that transcend size.

One challenge shared by all product teams is that you have to make decisions and tradeoffs under both uncertainty and constraint. Not everything gets built. Another is that changing expectations, competition, and technology makes having a steady pipeline of improvements and features critical to maintaining relevance. We need a steady stream of ideas.

Leaders know that the right people — builders — and the right culture — one in which good ideas can bubble up and get built quickly — can mean the difference between spinning wheels and gaining traction given these conditions.

Given all of that, we bet you’ve heard the refrain “ideas can come from anywhere.” We can’t tell you how often we hear it. It’s a phrase meant to motivate and inspire people to think about and share what’s possible with their company. Overall, we want to believe it.

To deliver on that sentiment though, companies often set up systems and processes to solicit and collect ideas. Think “idea suggestion boxes.” These suggestion boxes make me cringe. Here’s why…

Ideas don’t get built.

An idea suggestion box sets up the possibility that once an idea is shared, it’s somebody else’s responsibility (nameless and faceless management) to decide whether or not to make it happen. That’s the wrong dynamic.

When they are just ideas, it’s tough to evaluate which are most promising and to act on more than a few of them, if any. Management becomes inundated with ideas and employees become fatigued. Idea sharing becomes episodic, corresponding to “big idea challenges” and the like.

Employees start saying: “They don’t want to hear my ideas. I keep sharing them and they do nothing with them.” Management (and book authors) respond with “ideas are a dime a dozen” or “ideas are the easy part.” I don’t buy that either. Great ideas are hard, and that’s why we love them.

Rather than relying on suggestion boxes, we should be creating cultures where “prototypes can come from anywhere.” As leaders, we need to find ways to support people in creating these prototypes and making meaningful progress on their ideas, translating them from a seed of something interesting into great experiences, products, and businesses.

So next time you hear “so I was thinking about…” or “I had an idea…,” say “That idea sounds great. How are you going to build the prototype? Can I help?”

Discuss on our subreddit.