How to deal with a dumb idea

As part of our Creative Block Busting Workshop, we spend time talking about how to look at new ideas. We emphasise that there are only plus points and practical implementation concerns to an idea. There is nothing called a dumb idea.
Of course, no one was willing to accept this. In fact, managers felt that soft-peddling the issue of ‘dumb ideas’ would bring down their company’s quality standards. There is nothing like calling a spade a spade.
Most often, the idea may not be dumb but the person with the idea does not communicate it well. The idea itself could have promise. We tend to throw the baby with the bathwater. We end up confusing form with content. We could also dismiss an idea as ‘dumb’ just because we have not thought about it or we had never thought of it that way before or we have not understood it.
Let us assume that a young colleague approaches you with an idea. Frankly, you think it is dumb! How should you handle the situation?
Scenario 1
“How could you think of something so dumb? Frankly I expected a lot more from you.”
Honest and forthright. No ‘Yes, but’ diplomacy. No dancing around. You convey your views without any frills or fuss.
Does this guarantee that your young employee will come back with a better idea? Chances are he will never come back with another idea to you.
There will be an unintended outcome too. His colleagues will get a message that you do not tolerate vague or stupid ideas. Therefore, no body will waste your time.
Is that good? Not really. This will ensure that no body will ever discuss ‘possibilities’ with you any more. They will constantly spend time second-guessing how you will respond.
Scenario 2
“Frankly I have never thought of this way before. Therefore, I am very uncomfortable about it. I do not wish to take a risk with any thing like this.”
Again honest and forthright. Shifts the onus to the self rather than blaming the other person for bringing up a dumb idea.
Here your message to the person and every one else is that you are not averse to receiving new ideas but are not comfortable about such ideas. Therefore, you may not act on them.
This will not put off your people. They may occasionally come back to you if they think you will be comfortable with the idea.
Scenario 3
“I don’t know how to react because I have never thought about it this way. Tell me more. How will this benefit our company for instance?”
“This will improve our image.”
“Is it? How do you think it will happen?”
“This is my gut feel.”
“Ok. What else is the plus point of your idea?”
“I have to think in detail about that.”
“I will tell you what. I think you might have an interesting idea, even if I do not understand it. Can you spend some time thinking about the various benefits and advantages of this idea? How will it benefit our customers? How will it help us? In what way will it help us fight competition? Suppose we implemented this, how will media react? How much time would you need to think about all this? When can we meet on this?”
This will stretch the employee to think hard and look at different angles. It might help him improve the idea and articulate it better. He will learn more about how to discuss an idea in a more productive manner.
Chances are next time around he will come prepared. The idea may not sound dumb any more.
The good news about this approach is that it may not take very much time. The conversation described above may take no more than 5 minutes.
In the process, you have sent a strong message about your approach to new ideas. You are willing to listen even if the idea made you uncomfortable. You do not dismiss an idea just because you do not understand it.
You are even willing to take time to understand the idea better by asking some sharp questions. You show commitment by willing to spend more time. You give clear directions in terms of what you might be looking for in any idea.
In your own non-threatening way, you help this person learn.
Why bosses find it difficult to react this way
1. Pressure on time
2. Too many irons in the fire
3. Fighting Fire all the time
4. Unwillingness to make commitment
5.Impatience, low tolerance, can’t suffer fools
6. Inability to deal with ambiguity
7. Personal style that demands total clarity and water-tight logic all the time
8. Poor opinion about the individual who suggests the idea
9. Inadequate resources for experimentation
10. This not a burning issue right now
Next time one of your colleagues or employees approaches you with an ‘apparently dumb idea’ try a different approach. And see if it makes a difference.

“Do you need to teach people how to deal with a dumb idea?” I could detect a tinge od sarcasm in Prasna’s ** question.
“Oh! You read the post in”
“Yes. But answer my question.”
“Yes. The easiest thing to do is to kill a dumb idea. That any one can do. The tough thing is to handle it smartly and create a climate of safety.”
“So it is not about the dumb idea anymore but the impact of your action. Is it?”
“That is right.”

**Prasna Rao is an unusual friend. He appears every time I start writing something. He is almost always there when I am writing my blog. He asks questions that are razor sharp and often makes me uncomfortable. He is relentless till I answer his questions in simple, clear terms. You might find that he is most of the times asking questions that you want to. Therefore he is on your side, while he is putting me in the dock. I call him my Uninvited Coach

Picture by katerha available under a Creative Commons Attribution- licensed for commercial use.

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2 Responses to “How to deal with a dumb idea”

  1. Ram Santosh says:

    I love your blog interface..It is super well made..!
    today is the first time i saw ur blog and no other website has seemed so elegant to me.
    Good content.Good style .:)


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