Seems like there’s a lot being written about good ideas these days. If you follow what’s been written here in the past about design thinking, creativity, innovation – and capturing your good ideas when they come – chances are you are already improving at coming up with good ideas and capturing them as well. But just coming up with good ideas isn’t enough. How do you get others – mostly your work colleagues – to buy into your good idea? That’s where most of our ideas tend to run into the proverbial brick wall.
Consider this example based on a rather simple idea – a good one on the surface – that a library worker developed that he thought would make a small, but noticeable difference for some members of the library community. What I like about this idea is that it provides a great example of how we can come up with a good idea by keeping our antennae up so that we more acutely observe and listen in our library environment for ways to design a better library. The staff member noticed that in this one part of the library where there was nothing particular going on, students would gather in small groups to study. They would sit on the floor or pull some chairs together. They might make some noise. The staff member thought the library could do better for these students, but knew the library needed great flexibility to make the most of every piece of real estate. The simple observation lead to a new idea for a better library – create a flexible study space by installing a set of folding room dividers. Not only would it give the students more privacy, cut down on noise and make for a better study space, but it could be enhanced with a flat panel monitor on the wall for collaborative work. Great idea, right. Well you know what happened next. Of course, lots of reasons why that’s a bad idea. Too much foot traffic in that area already. Students who like the current setting will complain. The reference desk will be swamped with students asking how to use the monitor. When the walls are closed we won’t know what the students are doing in there…and so on. Certainly the project will require some funding, but it’s hardly what Jim Collins would refer to as an “above the waterline risk”, not to mention that if any of the imagined problems actually surface the room dividers can easily be removed. Still, there is opposition to the idea. Why does this happen and what can we do about it?
First though, back to the matter of more being written about good ideas. Seems there are two new books driving this conversation. I previously mentioned one of them, Steven Johnson’s new book about where good ideas come from. I noticed that Profhacker also had a post about Johnson’s book (if you aren’t reading Profhacker – sign up today). I also noted that Profhacker has a good post, along with comments, about capturing your good ideas – something I wrote about a while back. But there’s another book about good ideas you may want to read. This one, by John Kotter, isn’t about coming up with ideas and capturing them, it’s about the problem described above – how can you come up with simple ways to defend your ideas against the critics so that they have the best chance of surviving and actually getting implemented?
Kotter’s book is appropriately titled “Buy-In: Saving Your Good Idea from Getting Shot Down“, and I’ll share a few ideas from the book here. You can also read about it here, and there’s a good interview with Kotter in which he shares his ideas from the book in the October 2010 issue of Harvard Business Review (p. 129-132). Here is a brief summary of some of the key points that Kotter shares that explain why new ideas are attacked and how to instead gain support for an idea. Perhaps the most important thing you can do is to anticipate that your idea will be attacked. Kotter says the attack response is murky mix of human nature and group dynamics. His research showed that the most successful idea champions didn’t respond by trying to put down or marginalize their opposition. Instead they did what Kotter calls “inviting in the lions”. These folks embraced those criticizing their ideas, and invited their opinions. One of the biggest problems in getting support is information overload. Rather than give time and attention to a new idea, co-workers find it faster to just write it off and hope it will go away, thus giving them attention for other projects. Inviting their participation by engaging their attention – even if it is negative – is a good start. Then what?
Of course, there’s more. You need to know the four common attacks and how to avoid them. In fact there are up to 24 attacks (everything from “why change” to “we can’t afford it”) that Kotter and his fellow researchers identified. By being more familiar with what they are, Kotter says you can be prepared to respond – what you don’t want to do is respond by winging it. That usually ends up badly. So where do you learn all this? From the book. If you’re not sure if you should read it, here’s a ten-minute video interview with Kotter that should give you a better idea of what to expect from the book. I’ll be taking a closer look. Good ideas are hard to come by. When I get one, I want to give it the best chance possible of making it past the idea stage.