The Problem with Good Ideas

February 11, 2013 — 3 Comments

Light BulbAre good ideas ruining the effectiveness of your team or organization? Yes, you read that correctly. Are good ideas keeping you from winning? At a time when creativity and innovation are at a premium, good ideas are actually more threatening than ever.

As organizational leaders, we tend to worship good ideas. We don’t want followers who simply show up to do their work and leave, we want ones who generate ideas on their own and possess the motivation to see them through. So what makes good ideas so dangerous? The answer lies in the substantial difference between a good idea and a right idea (tweet). The difference between the two is alignment. In the absence of a guiding vision and strategy, there is no overarching target to align ideas with (whether good or bad ones). That means no basis exists to determine whether a particular good idea ought to be pursued or not. This can be all the more true for government, non-profit, and ministry organizations, who are rewarded not in dollars earned for products/services but for meeting what can often be vague or changing objectives.

Let’s take a closer look.

When an organization’s guiding vision is non-existent or unclear, good ideas can be dangerous.

In the absence of a guiding vision, good ideas represent low hanging fruit that unfocused leaders reflexively reach for, especially when pressured to report visible success. It’s likely you’ve seen this before.  When each individual comes up with different good ideas, the operating environment quickly gets complicated. It can be even worse in large organizations where entire teams come up with ideas independently of one another. Once a team or an individual commits to a good idea, their personal success and pride are on the line. Quitting equates to failure, so ideas evolve into personal agendas that turn departments, teams, and individuals into silos. Organizations can literally be pulled apart by pursuing different “good” ideas that send them in directions. The result is a wide variety of small “success stories,” but no accomplishment of the organizational mission, effectiveness, or momentum. All too often this leads to a loss of trust, miscommunication, and a decrease in morale, not to mention loss of market share or revenue. Instead of diagnosing what went wrong, more good ideas are elicited to save the day and the vicious cycle continues.

When an organization’s guiding vision exists and is clear, good ideas drive positive change.

Clarity inspires focused creativity and guides a team’s thinking. It places a buffer between people and their (collective) ideas since each idea is evaluated based on it’s ability to accomplish the overall objective. Special consideration is given to the opportunity cost of good ideas, since each one requires time and resources that cannot be easily reallocated to another better idea. When an idea is achieved, the success story is centered around the accomplishment of the mission and realization of the vision, instead of a disjointed summary of ad hoc success stories.

So what can you do when the “Good Idea Fairy” strikes? Bobb Biehl once said that a sign of maturity is putting process between opportunity and response. In this case, the process is evaluating each idea against the guiding vision to ensure alignment. Of each idea you must ask the question, “what are we really trying to accomplish and will this idea get us closer to the realization of our vision or not?” Here are some steps you may want to use:

  • Consider your guiding vision. If you don’t have one, or if it is unclear or under-communicated, give this your full attention before considering any new ideas that could risk spending time or resources pulling your organization in a wrong direction.
  • Brainstorm: don’t just evaluate each idea as it comes. Collect a wide range and evaluate them collectively.
  • Separate the ideas into groups of those that align with your vision and those that do not.
  • Of the ideas that do align, select the very best and get to work on them. Put the others into a “parking lot” for later consideration. For the ideas that do not align, consider how you can share them with other teams or organizations whose guiding vision would support their consideration.

In all of this, remember that they key is not to try to limit creative thinking or discourage people from sharing their thoughts. The key is to always have a visible True North, so that everyone can generate, commit to, and implement ideas they are fully confident will drive your organization in the right direction.

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader.  Receive his ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website or   follow him on Twitter.
  • Totally agree – good ideas can sometimes get in the way of the right thing to do if they aren’t in alignment with an organization’s strategic priorities. Love the reference to True North…a journey my company is taking.