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The Life of an Idea

What happens with an idea, after it pops up in your head? You think about it. You read about it. Do some background research. Talk with a few people… Eventually, when it has passed these initial “sanity” checks, you may put it forward to your manager, to get his or her take on your idea and if possible approval to take action. 

Submitting ideas

In most organizations, submitting ideas is made as easy as possible. The idea being that you don’t want to hinder the creative flow of people and that more ideas is better. True.

However, that puts undue burden elsewhere. As someone in the organization will have to comb through all the ideas and evaluate which ones to pursue and which not.

Three options

In case a manager has to make the decision on what to do next with the idea, he or she has three options: yes, no or maybe.


Given most organizational cultures, “no”, is not really an option. The problem with most ideas is that they are intertwined with the submitter. If the manager says “no” he or she will be seen as someone not open for fresh ideas. In addition, the manager will also be perceived to be saying “no” to the person. That is, as someone who squanders the hope of young talent.


“Yes”, is not an attractive answer either. It puts an undue burden on the shoulders of the manager. With their yes, they suddenly become proponents of the idea. That is, one of the many champions an idea needs to come to fruition.

However, how can one say yes if there is minimum information available? With only a brief – one or two sentences – description of the innovative idea?

The manager’s gut feeling will have to tell whether this is something worth exploring further. And one thing research shows again and again, is that gut feelings and innovation are not a very good combination. They either make people over-optimistic or over-conservative.

All in all, the chances of a manager saying “yes” to a preliminary idea are slim.


In my experience, nearly all submitted ideas get a “maybe”. “Sounds interesting”, followed by “Can you provide some more information and details?”.

Now, with a structured innovation process, the top box in the diagram above, this request for more information comes with clear guidelines, such as information about the market size, fit with the firm’s strategy, number of current clients that could potentially be interested, etc..

Without a structured innovation process, the bottom box in the diagram, the idea owner is left in the dark, as to figure out what information he or she should collect to get an idea approved or write a business case.

It suits you well to know which type of decision-maker your manager is. Do you need to provide details to make him or her comfortable making the decision, or do you need to sketch the big picture?

However, regardless the amount of information you provide, it will probably never be sufficient to get the “yes” you need to advance. So with a “Maybe” you are certainly not out of the woods.


Idea sharing and voting systems

There are social idea generating and sharing systems, that allow all employees of an organization to vote. In this case all employees become responsible for sorting through ideas. 

Only ideas that rise to the top will proceed, which makes rejection less personal.

Upon getting selected based on popular vote, also these ideas still need resources and funding to be further detailed. 


The everlasting quest for more information

Especially without a structured approach, the burden of proof becomes a tug of war. With on the one hand the ambitious young professionals who want to move on with the minimum amount of information as possible. On the other hand the senior managers, who want to have as much insight as possible before giving their blessing and committing precious time and resources.

It is a tug of war, because in most organizations the burden of ownership and accountability is shifting the moment approval is given for further exploration. The idea owner does not want to give up their ownership, as it will be unclear what happens next. The manager does not want to accept ownership, as it was never their idea in the first place.

As a result, managers have a tendency to ask for more information on each round, and be as unspecific as possible about the type of information you needed. We call this “Endless loop # 1”.

The manager can endlessly delay the process, without ever having to say no. You, as idea owner will probably give up sooner or later and the idea gets buried. Nobody will ever get blamed for what was not done.

High attrition rates of young and ambitious people is typically the only signal that indicates this problem exists within the organization.

Final note

A structured approach to detail ideas and defining minimum thresholds or other criteria an idea must meet before they can be submitted, has its downsides too. It may avoid the above described tug of war, however, often such criteria work like a cookie cutter, molding every project into the exact same shape.

That is not helpful for anyone either. Wacky, unruly ideas are often the most promising and valuable. Such ideas typically don’t fit the current norms of the organization and often fail to meet these thresholds or predefined selection criteria.

Thus, when going through the information-gathering process to strengthen an innovative idea, be smart.

Don’t link data gathering to the idea, as that often is a sketch of a future that does not yet exist.  How can one collect such data and information anyways?

Instead, link the data gathering and proof to the things that are visible and tangible, like industry trends, most common challenges, client complaints, etc. Factual data, that shows the topic – not necessarily the specific idea – is worth exploring further.

Later in the life of the idea – when it is part of an innovation project – you can start addressing what the best solution should look like. By then, the idea has matured into an innovation project, with a team, resources and support.

Interested in learning how to guide an idea through these initial phases? Sign up for our Challenge.

Now, go out there and change the world for your clients, organization, and profession!