John Steinbeck is one of my favorite authors and the originator of a quote I love: “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”
It’s actually pretty easy to come up with ideas, provided you’re OK with lots of bad ones. Far more difficult is learning how to handle the keepers -- the ones you actually want to go places. In my experience, these are the behaviors most crucial to mastering the craft of ideas wrangling.
1. Share the credit.
Anyone who has worked with me knows I’m a big proponent of collaboration. And so I read with interest about a recent academic study probing the relationship between creativity and credit. The researchers discovered that when an individual within a group of potential collaborators took full ownership of the original idea (“Just to be clear, although I am asking you for your input, I consider this to be my proposal, not yours.”), the other team members were understandably reluctant to give their all to the project. For the most part, they were still willing to help, but the supporting ideas they offered were judged significantly less creative than those advanced by a separate control group.
Don’t be so proprietary about your ideas that you leave no room for the fingerprints of others.
2. Test the waters.
I know a guy who swears there’s a market for heated ties. Nothing anyone says can convince him that exceedingly few men would be willing to pay for a fashion accessory that warms one’s neck and a portion of one’s chest. Happily, he’s unlikely to ever try to market the thing, but there are plenty of equally awful product ideas that actually do appear on store shelves, even from major brands. Colgate Kitchen Entrees, anyone? No? Not even if it comes with a free Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer? If you haven’t read the reviews on Amazon, you really should.
Ignore the voices in the cornfield. Just because you build it does not mean anyone is going to come. Talk with people you trust about your idea and actually listen to what they have to say, even the negative stuff. And, no, asking your kids and subordinates what they think doesn’t count as a focus group.
3. Let it out of the bag.
There’s a delicate balancing act between releasing an idea before it’s strong enough to survive the elements and holding on to it so long that its time has passed -- or someone else has beaten you to the punch. LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman has been quoted as saying, “If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” I’m not sure I entirely agree with the sentiment, but I do believe one of the greatest risks you can take with a Big Idea is to keep mulling it over and tinkering with it ad nauseam because you’re fretful that it’s not yet perfect.
Let your idea out into the light, even if that simply means presenting it to a colleague or three. No matter how terrific the idea, there is zero value to it until it’s shared.
4. Protect it.
You may have heard the woeful tale of HitchBOT, the hitchhiking robot. The friendly Canadian had already made its way across its home country, plus Germany and the Netherlands, but its trek across the U.S. this summer was cut short by an incident in Philadelphia. And by incident, I mean decapitation and mutilation. So much for the City of Brotherly Love.
When you send your Big Idea out into the world, be sure you have its back. Be there to help it navigate unexpected roadblocks and treacherous turns. As our robotic friend learned, one can’t always rely on the kindness of strangers.
5. Put some skin in the game.
In my view, one of the biggest reasons ideas flounder and fizzle is that their creators don’t fight for them. If you’re not willing to go out on a limb for your Big Idea, why should anyone else?
I love the story of Barry J. Marshall, who in 2005 was awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery, two decades earlier, that bacteria cause stomach ulcers. At the time of the discovery, Marshall was ridiculed for his idea because “everyone” knew that bacteria couldn’t survive in the acidic environment of the stomach. The medical establishment was convinced the culprits were stress and diet, especially spicy foods. Rather than back down, as others had done before him, Marshall decided to use himself as a guinea pig, drinking a petri dish of dangerous bacteria to prove his point. Within days, he began to develop ulcers, which he then treated successfully with a course of antibiotics.
I would hardly suggest risking your health in the cause of a great idea, but, if you truly believe in it and have amassed sufficient evidence that it will work, don’t back down at the first sign of opposition. As computer pioneer Howard Aiken so aptly said, “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”