Your boss is a (research-backed) terrible judge of new ideas. So … what now?

Take these two concepts and think about them:

In short, managers are usually in charge of moving concepts from “idea” to “execution,” even if the proposer of the idea will be the one spearheading the execution phase.

But — and here’s a big, Sir-Mix-A-Lot-style butt — what if managers are bad judges of new ideas? 

The value of new ideas

There are definitely two minds on this concept. I oftentimes think the whole value of work at the employee level is finding a way to get your ideas to catch on, because without that — you’re probably grinding along on the same stuff all the time, and that can too quickly lead to a ‘heads-down’ culture where your boss thinks “He/she is a target-hitter! Love a good workhorse!” Once that happens, you’re essentially stagnated.

So personally, I — me, moi, etc. — believe ideas are valuable and organizational breakthroughs can come from anywhere in a company.

The thing is, senior leaders and executives often don’t think this way, for a variety of reasons:

  • They have a wider span of control and can see how parts of the org fit together (ideally)
  • They already have a lot of stuff on their plate and don’t want to add more
  • They are comfortable with X, Y, and Z revenue models and don’t want to change that
  • They fear being viewed as incompetent (which is a huge reason why digital marketing isn’t a bigger deal at most places)
  • They believe new ideas should only emerge from their levels
  • They view new ideas as a threat

Now look — there is an attitude, and a viable one, whereby some good ideas need to be killed. If you say ‘yes’ to everything, then your employees are constantly hair-on-fire and running in circles. So there is a line. But oftentimes, org charts look like this:

And that ‘VP of Status Quo’ job is very real…

Managers and recognizing good ideas

Here’s some research out of Stanford, soon to be published in Administrative Science Quarterly, which seems to show that managers are not the best judges of the potential effectiveness of new ideas:

Berg’s research suggests that even with all their knowledge and experience, managers are usually not the best at predicting the success of a new idea, nor is the creator of the idea. Instead, the best judges are peers of the creator, who have spent time generating their own ideas, but not the idea in question.

‘Berg’ refers to Justin Berg above.

That makes sense — and it definitely makes sense in the academic world, where peer-review is everything, as opposed to ‘department-head review’ being everything. Thing is, though: in a corporate culture, peer review is confusing and hard to implement — in part because no one really wants to collaborate, which is a dirty little secret of the workplace — so we need a system that seems to make sense.

For decades, that system has been hierarchy — X-person can vet your ideas, and that’s that. Hierarchy probably isn’t going anywhere, no matter what you think of concepts like holacracy.

Now, before we go any further, let’s admit this: Berg’s study was done in the circus arts industry. That’s obviously a very specific industry, so if you work in oil and gas or finance or social media marketing, maybe it doesn’t apply to you as directly. All studies have flaws. All people have flaws. This is just about new ways of thinking about things.

How can we more effectively move along good ideas?

This is an essential question for any workplace, because:

  • People want to make more money (which is how “good idea” is oft-defined)
  • People don’t want to chase their tails on meaningless projects (“bad” ideas)

And yet, I honestly doubt many people give a lot of thought to the systems they have in place to solicit good ideas and move them along to an execution phase. Let’s consider some options.

Ideation Software: This is the first place most companies would run. Companies love to throw technology or consultants at things as opposed to realistically looking at the situation in-house and seeing if it can be solved that way. Ideation software refers to things like digital suggestion boxes, etc. It doesn’t really work. The dirty little secret here is that most executives approve it because it’s a low-cost option that makes it seem like they care about employee voice. They typically don’t. (Some do!) They care about margins and revenue. So if you can make it seem like you care about what employees are saying, then design a totally confusing pathway through the software so that no one is clear who has ownership of the ideas being submitted, well, you’ve just advanced to Level II of being a senior executive. I don’t like the idea of ideation software, in general.

Walk around and talk to people: Basically, organic feedback loops. Try ‘management by walking around.’  This is all designed to replace the once-a-year review process. Most bad managers hide behind that as the only time you can give feedback. You know what happens when you give feedback about something in August the next January? Resentment on the employee side. That’s not a good way to run a business, and yet we do this every day in America because that’s the way it’s always been done. If you really want to find and advance good ideas, talk to people. Keep it human. Then advocate for the concepts that everyone — not just the manager — seems to agree might make sense. The idea could still flop. Great ideas often flop. But it’s about providing the voice at some level.

Peer Review Committees: The key here would be utilizing people from different levels — so not just execs. Maybe 2 execs, two high-middle managers, two emergent high-potentials, and two rank-and-files. Honestly, an exec would go nuts screeching about “understanding the biz” if a rank-and-file was added to a committee like this, but here’s the deal: rank-and-files who respond to tweets probably know the customers better than a senior executive does. BLASPEHMY! No. It’s actually right. Capitalism has a business model that inverts the pyramid, so the further you get from the customer, the more perks you get. It’s basically a system that says “Run from the customer, but constantly claim the customer means everything!” Anyway, balance a peer review committee and have ideas flow through there. Obviously the two execs will have the most clout, but … if the committee votes yes, the plan is now ready to be executed.

Any other ideas here? I’d welcome them.

Why is the ability to move along good ideas important?

Think about a concept like cruise lines. Think about operas. Think about fax machines.

These are business/service lines that we traditionally associate with older people — Boomers and later. As they retire and/or pass away, those lines need to reinvent themselves. And if their executives are just younger Boomers with similar ideas as to their corporate mentors, the reinvention ideas won’t be good. They’ll be stagnant, status quo, and more of the same.

That’s why it’s important. Your future business literally depends on it.

Any other thoughts?

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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