How to Advance Your Innovative Ideas


Have you ever been thoroughly excited about your ideas, only to see them shot down without any serious consideration at all?

I still vividly remember the experience of presenting my exciting new idea to the senior leaders in our company years ago. Expecting enthusiasm, interest or at least alternative solutions, instead my carefully prepared plan was met with skepticism and concern—a reflection of this group of leaders’ low tolerance for risk. Particularly frustrating to me was the fact that no strong case against the idea was made, and no other ideas were being pursued. It was clear: not screwing up was the cultural gestalt of the company. It was deflating and disengaging.

Every company and leader tends toward a culture or mindset about the risk associated with change. It can be helpful to understand the mindset you’re dealing with as you lead and recommend process improvement and innovation.

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Understanding the Cultural Tolerance for Risk

Six Sigma methodology distinguishes between two types of risk: Alpha and Beta. Alpha risk is the risk of incorrectly rejecting something that is actually good. Therefore, if the idea I had presented to my senior leaders was a good one, it was being rejected because of a dominant Alpha mindset.

Beta risk, on the other hand, is the risk of letting something happen that should have been rejected in the first place. So lack of due diligence or quality control would occur in a company with strong Beta mindset.

Companies and leaders with a predominantly Alpha risk mindset tend to be protectionist, careful and slow to act. These are the leaders that impulsively say no and jump first to looking for problems with idea. Accountants, engineers, attorneys and scientists often become Alpha leaders. Sales people and creative types, by contrast, tend to become Beta leaders.

Innovation experts view the differences in cultural mindset in similar ways. Clayton Christensen wrote in his classic book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, that two types of innovation exist: sustaining and disruptive. He details examples of leading companies that only develop innovations that produce incremental advantages over their existing offerings. This is primarily an Alpha risk mindset: don’t screw up what’s already in place. Unfortunately for them, though, another company usually comes along with a disruptive innovation and upends the marketplace. Think taxicabs and Uber.

So companies and leaders steeped in history and tradition tend to develop a sustaining innovation mindset. New entrants to a market or position are often more open to seeing things in entirely disruptive ways.

Bringing Intention to the Innovation Process

Both Alpha/sustaining mindsets and Beta/disruptive mindsets have advantages, particularly during different stages of a company or career lifecycle. The key is to know the cultural milieu and be intentional about leading and communicating ideas.

Dale Carnegie provides these nine steps for bringing more intention to the process—while keeping the cultural tolerance for risk in mind—so that an idea is more likely to make an impact:

  1. Visualize: Cast a compelling picture of the ideal future state. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., didn’t say, “I have a plan.” He said, “I have a dream.”
  2. Clarify: Current reality provides evidence of a need. Also, understanding the emotional context around the need sets up the conditions for buy-in.
  3. Frame: A thought-provoking question frames the problem. The central question should generate new and clearer thinking about the gap between current reality and the desired future.
  4. Ideate: The purpose of this step is to generate lots of ideas without judging them. Ideas should come from a diverse representation of stakeholders.
  5. Evaluate: At this point, you begin to prioritize and select ideas by filtering them through key criteria.
  6. Align: A selected idea needs to be connected to the priorities of all stakeholders to maximize buy-in and adoption.
  7. Implement: Ideas need to have a solid plan that is resourced and executed. The clearer the plan, the more credibility and accountability will follow.
  8. Follow-up: To ensure idea sustainability and to generate a halo effect for future ideas, ongoing follow-up is crucial.
  9. Evaluate: Finally, measuring impact shows ROI and makes the case for continued improvement and innovation.

What type of innovation culture exists in your team, department or organization? Are you doing everything you can to be a productive innovator within that context

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1 Comment

  • Matt DeKam
    July 20, 2016 at 10:16 pm

    Excellent post! Indeed, the market rewards living in the balance of preventing not just alpha risk or beta risk, but both!

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