I recently spoke with a CEO of a $100 million company who described a recent initiative to search through the company's "Museum of Good Ideas."

In discussions with his key people, he found that many of the best ideas he was seeing in the market, and hearing about from competitors and customers were ideas that had already been considered--and usually rejected--inside his own company. Even worse was the realization that his company had often had the idea much earlier than it had been implemented elsewhere.

He diagnosed the problem thusly: "I came to believe that we did not have a shortage of good ideas, but we had a shortage of good ideas that stuck."

The question for him was simple: Why do some ideas that have merit ultimately get pushed off to the 'museum'? He realized ideas were losing steam inside the company for a lot of reasons. Among them:

  • Loss of the idea's champion, through promotion or displacement
  • Change in organizational structure or goals
  • Testing of a new idea to solve the same issue
  • Lack of passion for the idea's potential
  • Death by a thousand critics
  • Limited resources for competing ideas
  • Boredom or the need to tinker

In truth, ideas need steam to take root and turn into value.  Companies that are good at identifying valuable ideas and harvesting them use the following techniques to bring these ideas to life.

Advocates: Without someone to advocate for each idea, the idea will not gather steam. An advocate cares enough to personally shepherd the idea through the process of being fleshed out, evaluated, possibly tested, and then implemented. This may require extra time outside of his or her other responsibilities.

Mentors: Companies who encourage ideas coming from all levels of their staff create a mentor position--a senior executive who can help the advocate anticipate all of the questions he or she will be asked. The mentor has been through the process before and can provide great counsel on how to do the best possible job of getting the idea supported, tested, funded and implemented.

Alignment: The word alignment is often used to explain the acceptance or rejection of a new idea. It is used to describe how this new idea will integrate with company culture, politics, financial objectives, and other initiatives. Mentors can help an advocate navigate this necessary set of filters to determine whether the idea is aligned with the company.

The funny thing about the above elements is that they exist in companies of all sizes, but usually informally. Ideas emerge all the time: Some are fireworks, with big, bright bursts and fast fades; others grow slow and rhythmically. But for those companies who value great ideas as a competitive advantage, these implicit roles and decisions often become explicit and intentional.

If you believe that culture eats strategy for breakfast, then you want a culture of ideas. And if you want more ideas and more idea generators, you may need to change the company culture to create a clear path for ideas to follow.  This will not only produce a crop of new ideas, but also keep the good ones out of the museum archives.