April 2006 Insight Newsletter

Too Many Great Ideas?

Can you have too many great ideas? In some cases the answer seems a definite yes. But great ideas help keep us moving forward in every situation. Knowing how to manage them well is the real challenge.

Overwhelming Our Capacity

We’ve all been in organizations where ideas were tossed out by the dozen. Each seems more creative than the last. Things go wrong when people attempt to pursue too many at once without enough time between them. In my last corporate role we undertook more than 110 reorganizations and four mergers in the 14 years I managed human resources — almost one great new strategic idea a month — and those are only the ones that went ahead. Because some affected only one or two departments, they didn’t all overlap, but we inevitably found many changes overtaking previous ideas before the prior ones were complete.

For example, when we worked to implement just one small, challenging change in customer service (mentioning the customer’s name when handing back their credit card), we found a pretty good benchmark for how long change can take to reach all the way to the front line. It took more than 10 years for that behavior to become reasonably consistent.

To some that immediately seems like an excessive delay, but let’s take a minute to understand it. When we first announced the requirement, many staff were hesitant. You can’t just give out an order and threaten to fire them all if they don’t comply. You first need to convince your mid-management leaders to train, encourage and model the behavior themselves. You also get resistance from then on at every stage. People come up with logical counter-arguments. In this case, “we’ll mess up the name and annoy our customers; we’ll embarrass ourselves; we won’t be able to read the name (credit cards fade), some people will object and we’ll offend them, etc., etc.” All may be reasonable conclusions that take time to assess, disprove and counter.

After overcoming initial objections, people begin to learn, but that too requires more time. Meanwhile leaders and priorities change. Most senior leaders assume that the new practices are by now well established. But revolving managers and new additions may not even know of it. It isn’t reinforced and staff soon notice that and cease doing it. If it was a valuable, important strategy, its absence will be noted at some stage and reinforcement will begin again. So goes the learning curve, including backsliding and plateaus periodically. In a very large organization 10 years can actually go by fairly quickly while this seesaw process is operating.

In his excellent book “Winning,” former CEO of GE, Jack Welch observes that effective strategy should last twenty years or more. We see management teams go off site annually and come back with a “new” vision and set of strategies. This approach isn’t effective. In most cases these won’t be “new,” but simply rehashed versions of previous work. Re-dedication is fine — very appropriate actually — but to pretend the ideas are new is dangerous and a waste of time.

What Is New Then?

The old saying, “there’s nothing new under the sun,” has some truth to it when applied to high-level strategy. What’s always new though is how a strategy applies to your specific situation. Inevitably your circumstances are unique. The staff you need to train or draw into the strategy are all unique individuals, working in a unique culture, facing new, unique competition and so forth. The overall combination of circumstances will be different from anything encountered before, often in rather subtle ways. New methods for promoting the strategies you need will be required.

This is why, in books like Larry Bossidy’s “Execution,” there is growing emphasis today on the critical importance of the implementation stage with new, or more properly, re-dedicated ideas. The same is true for individuals. If you do an in-depth review of your personal strategies, you will likely find your general direction and goals haven’t changed much. Most experts suggest you review these for 20 minutes every five to six months. Studies show this increases your mental and physical health and your dedication to achieving your goals. However, the more important challenge, which you will need to do consistently pursue throughout the five months between these short reviews, is focusing in on the new ideas you should try to generate for how to approach them better. The overall goal being to take more effective action day by day.

Setting strategies or goals is critical. Coming up with great ideas for putting them into action is even more important. This requires digging carefully into the reasons why you haven’t made progress on a particular goal you said was important. Thomas Edison said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” For all the great ideas generated, most aren’t successful the first time they are tried. It takes considerable thought and effort to follow through to completion. Many companies and individuals never achieve that because they think once they thought up the original idea, they’re finished. If anything the ideas required to succeed in the follow-through are more important than the original strategic ideas themselves.

But I Don’t Have Ten Years

But you do. Unless you’re 100 years old, you almost certainly can count on ten years ahead. What else will you do with that time if not continue working on your most important goals? Keep working and you’ll make progress. Progress feels good. It’s the basis of happiness.

You have the ability to bring greater consistency, honesty, customer service and a positive work environment to everything you do. Those fundamental strategies won’t change no matter what role or business you’re in.

We imagine we won’t be happy unless we can get to our final goals in one jump. Fortunately that’s not true. Along the way we’ll achieve so many other side goals that we hadn’t anticipated, we’ll find we’re even more pleased with the overall result when we get there. Our lives are continuous. Every bit of progress counts. It isn’t necessary and usually isn’t possible to achieve our final goals within a year or two. Imagine if it were. What would we do then?

Companies have a harder time. Because executives commonly change jobs every one to three years, they feel the need to prove themselves with visible successes within these short time frames. It isn’t just the short term results demanded by shareholders that creates problems for companies. It’s the short-term results executives attempt to achieve for themselves. That’s why many of the most successful companies have had CEOs who have remained in place for longer periods. Consistency of focus and action leads to the greatest successes.

All but the most unhealthy companies and individuals have 10 years ahead of them. We need to think in terms of big ideas that last 10 years or more and then focus on smaller ideas that help us achieve those overall goals most effectively. Ideas aren’t the problem. How we handle them doesn’t need to be either.