Was JFK right?

“A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on. Ideas have endurance without death.”  John F. Kennedy

Well, I am not saying JFK didn’t have a point and clearly the best ideas should endure. However, working in the field of idea management, I can attest that ideas can wither and die and quite frankly be crushed and dismissed with ease. So, in some sense, I am going to have to beg to differ!

Recently I was in conversation (that’s to say I thought we were having a conversation) with someone who has been in the idea management space for a while now.  But when I spoke my opinion and offered  we were already trying some of the ideas he was suggesting (in fact not only trying but further developing those ideas),  I got told and I quote; “You are the perfect idea manager, been there, done it and not willing to listen”.  I was quite annoyed with that.  I have always considered myself open to new ideas.  And, as he was clearly irritated by me, needless to say the conversation ended fairly swiftly after that point.

However it does just go to illustrate how vital communication is.  Using the right words at the right time is critical for ideas to develop.   Plus, understanding the purpose of the communication can really help you to react appropriately.  In this instance, the individual concerned just wanted to demonstrate how knowledgeable he was and quite happy to deliver a monologue with no intent in engaging in two way conversation.  The throw-away comment about how idea managers are not interested in ideas allowed me a “lesson learnt” moment.  It started me thinking, that contrary to the JFK quote, how easy it really is to ‘kill’ ideas with a misjudged word or statement.

Now I am not saying it is bad to kill ideas, in fact it is an essential part of active idea management.  Within learning organisations, every idea is an opportunity to test an assumption, failures are embraced and act as a true learning experience.  However it is how you go about killing ideas that makes all the difference to the outcome and whether preventing ideas developing is intentional or unintentional.  Comments, and the individual managers who make them, as I see it can fall into one of three camps:

  1. The True Idea Supporters – Those who set out to actively support ideas, motivating and encouraging employees through their words and actions
  2. The Neutral Ones – Neither supporting nor preventing ideas, however by not actively encouraging ideas and often through just the sound of silence, people are likely to get take the hint that ideas may not be welcome and slowly but surely the volume of ideas will die off
  3. The Idea Destroyers – Having no time for employee ideas and suggestions and no problems that need others to solve

We probably all know individuals who sit in each camp.   But beware!  Even those of us who would like to be seen as idea supporters can be guilty of slipping into the other two camps occasionally.  When work gets busy, deadlines are looming, our in-box starts to build up – it is then that ideas may slide to the back-burner and our responses become delayed.   This lack of communication can give the air of neutrality or worse. The impact that has on the idea submitter is to not bother next time and to advise your peers not to either.

When you think how fragile a young idea is, how we need to nurture those first shoots, you can appreciate just how easy it is to prevent the seeds from germinating or let them wither over time or swiftly stamp them out with your size 10 boots through a poorly chosen phrase.  So what phrases should we avoid using at all costs?  Here are a few I have collated along with the perceived impact by the submitter.   There are so many more.  And if you are honest, you too may admit to having used one or more of these at times?

  • We tried it before and it just doesn’t work
    – Can’t bother to see if anything has changed since last time
  • You haven’t thought that through
    – Not very bright, are you
  • We don’t have time for that
    – You were not too busy to come up with the idea
  • You’ve got to be kidding
    – Treated like a joke, but you are not laughing
  • This isn’t your area of expertise
    – You aren’t that smart
  • That’s against company policy
    – Maybe company policy needs a review
  • You can try if you want but I doubt it’s going to work
    – Go ahead, waste more of your time
  • It’s against our standard operating procedures
    – Which one and why
  • Good luck with that
    – Don’t expect my support
  • We don’t have the budget
    – We are slaves to the budget, nothing new will ever happen
  • We have invested too much to change now
    – Keep digging that hole
  • Good idea but…
    – Don’t want to invest the time
  • I don’t think of you as a creative person
    – You think the idea isn’t mine

Sometimes no words are needed.  A look of disinterest, a roll of your eyes or a misplaced giggle is enough to send the idea into oblivion.  Now don’t get me wrong, there is no such thing as 100% implementation rate in any idea management scheme.   So it is not only inevitable, but necessary that some ideas do not get implemented.  Many will be dismissed at the initiation stage and some further down the line – hopefully helping us learn valuable lessons for the future.

For a good idea to succeed it is going to need a lot of time, resources and attention.  So, by default, even some good ideas may need to be culled.  Importantly it’s how you do it. The positive intent behind your action and the language used can makes all the difference to your future success.

So before you “kill” an idea, first acknowledge receipt.  A simple thank you can be enough in many instances.  Next engage your curiosity, explore and above all ensure you understand.  Ask questions to gain clarity.  Remove your bias and be consistent in your approach, having criteria with which you analyse each idea.  If the idea doesn’t match up, then above all, provide timely feedback to explain why.  An idea that has been rejected today may yet have value in the future.   Archiving those ideas and reviewing periodically may well be worth considering.

Finally, allow me to paraphrase another quote from JFK – “Ask not what your country (employees’ ideas) can do for you, but what you can do for your country (employees’ ideas).”  Whilst you cannot predict how people will react, the next time someone comes to you with an idea choose your words carefully.  Take the time to be supportive.   You never know; you could just be discovering the gem of an idea that will last a lifetime!