One summer, while working at Texas Instruments, I flew to Israel to meet the local team there. One of the engineers came to me after the meeting and, frustrated, said: "I need your help. I have so many great ideas, but management keep shooting them down!" He wanted to tell me what those ideas were, but I stopped him. 

"Why do you think they are shooting them down?" I asked. "I don't know..." He said. "And what are you doing about it?" I added. He looked at me puzzled. "What do you mean? What can I do about it? There is nothing I can do!"

"Well, then," I concluded: "your ideas were not shot down by management--they were shot down by you!"

You see, we are practicing the traditional "innovation funnel" in most companies. Employees bring ideas to the "judges" at management, and they are being evaluated there. There are two problems with that. The first is that management has some of the most unqualified people to judge those ideas. I'm not being cynical. I really mean it. Think about it: the management evaluator doesn't know the technology half as much as the engineer who brought the idea, and had never done a thorough market research. How would they know if this is a good idea or not?

An article   written by Stevens and Burley in 1997 (3,000 raw ideas = 1 commercial success!) suggested that for every one business success there were 3,000 ideas that were brought forward. Which brings the second problem: how much time do you think management has to spend on each idea, knowing that it will take 3,000 of them to get one right? And even worse--given that they probably cannot spend more than 5 minutes on each (the amount of time it took evaluators I observed to decide whether an idea presented to them is worth filing as a patent or not), how long do you think it will take to judge 3,000 ideas (hint: more than 31 full working days), and what do you think are the probabilities of false negatives (rejecting a good idea) or false positives (accepting a bad one)?

Here is what you need to do as a manager. First--eliminate two sentences from your lexicon: "I'll be the judge of that" and "I'll know it when I see it." Second, when an employee comes to you with what she believes is a great idea, don't discourage her. Simply ask "what do you need to get it done?" Once the surprise factor wanes down, in most cases employees will not know what it takes to get it done. Send them to find out. They will have to collaborate with others to find the answer. Once they find the answer (if they didn't already know it), say the following. Repeat after me:

"This is what it will take for me to say yes and give you what you need."

Give them a piece of paper that constitutes your conditions to fund the project, and allocate the required resources. Those could be market size, competitiveness, alignment with company core competencies, development of new ones, and everything you consider when you make those decisions. 

You will be amazed at the impact of this empowering statement. Now, one of your conditions can certainly be that this cannot be at the expense of their existing commitments and projects. That's fair game. 

When I worked on launching USB 3.0 at Texas Instruments, I didn't get management approval. But I ignored the rejection. I approached the best engineers in our group and told them: "I need your help on this project. Management did not approve it. You can't tell anyone, and if  you do--you will get in trouble, and I can't help you then." Little did I know that this was a value proposition to an engineer... 

So, reduce to writing the conditions under which you will be willing to fund the project, and when someone comes with an idea--give them this sheet and tell them "here is what it will take for me to say yes and give you what you need."

This may end up being the most powerful statement you made that day. 

Published on: Feb 25, 2016
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