Have you ever been sitting, watching TV and a show or ad comes on and you say, “I had that idea a long time ago!” and then feel like you’re a failure? Some people say there are no new ideas, that everything has been done and some say they have no luck with their ideas.
The Beatles certainly went through years of rejection from music executives that said guitar music was on the way out, etc., etc. blah, blah, blah. Who was right? What did The Who go through?
29 publishers turned down JK Rowling, also known as the richest woman in England thanks to her uber-successful Harry Potter series, before someone saw the charm and possibilities of the idea. One can only hope there are 29 editors still looking for work.
The world is filled with stories like these. Great ideas passed over by mediocre judges and the people who have the drive and determination to persevere with their ideas.
As creatives, we have many ideas that fly into our heads. One might say Rowling had one idea – big deal! How many ideas have you had that you pushed with the same verve?
Still, while employed at a firm or corporate entity, you will try to introduce ideas to create new products, procedures and income for our employer… and gain some notoriety and, hopefully, a bonus in pay. If you’ve tried this, you know there are many roadblocks to introducing innovative ideas.
Why Are Ideas Shot Down?
Ideas speak of change, innovation and the unknown. They represent risk, so many of the people in charge of approving new ideas opt for the mediocre. Why does Hollywood keep producing remakes of films that can stand on their own as the original? It’s the feeling that the public will accept the safe and familiar.
In the corporate world, the best ideas come from those who are closest to the product but are filtered up to middle management for them to introduce to upper management. This “taste-filter” or “idea-funnel,” as they are named, are more-often than not, a dead end or repository for a time when a middle manager can bring up the idea as their own. Sound bitter? Not if you have experienced it!
Sometimes it’s just the wrong time for an idea. While innovation should drive the market, it’s an unfortunate fact that consumers and the market… or marketing, drives innovation. More often than not, companies will take a “wait and see” stance with innovation, letting a smaller firm or competitor take the risk and then jumping in and trying to take the larger market share with the same product or service. Innovation takes risk and most of it financial. In the current economic climate, no company wants to take the risk. Most of the innovations we see today are either from emerging, small firms or individuals. There are some firms, such as Apple and Google that have always driven their business based on innovation.
As creatives, we are always thinking of a better way to improve process, the product or the message. It infuriates us when our ideas fall on deaf ears. Here’s some common problems idea people will run up against in trying to push innovation:
At my last corporate position, I had submitted an idea to the company’s innovation department. They had me sign a document turning over all rights, which is standard. I traded emails with the project manager and heard nothing more. Two years later, the company newsletter highlighted a new product that had garnered millions in sales and would be reissued for the following year. I emailed the project director with whom I had dealt years before and found he had left the company. His replacement claimed they didn’t know where the idea had been generated. I sent a copy of the document I had signed and heard nothing.
I finally approached my immediate manager to see if he would intercede so I could merely list the accomplishment on my year-end review. He met with me and said he made some calls and no one knew where the idea had come from. He suggested I document my ideas from then on. I showed him copies of all the emails and documents. He looked me in the eye and with a crooked smile on his face; he shrugged as if the paper trail just didn’t matter. The product was a big deal and obviously, someone else had gotten the credit and introducing myself into the equation would upset the status quo. That’s how it happens in the corporate world. After several other similar incidents, I stopped submitting ideas. Judging by the desperate calls for innovative ideas from upper management, so had everyone else at the company. One of the problems and shame of American business and the disappearance of innovation.
The “Time Is Wrong.”
If a company feels the public isn’t ready for an idea, they won’t touch it. It will be put on a shelf and eventually resurface under someone else, long after you are “forgotten” as the innovator.”
While pushing a greeting card company to explore cell phone greetings in 2001, they explained they specialize in “ink on paper.” A year or so ago, they started some Facebook greetings. I guess the time was right for digital initiatives.
Getting back to the point of the “taste-filters,” some middle management people just don’t want to stick out their necks for an idea. They get their paychecks for mediocre performance, so why should they care? Frustrating for the innovator but you might as well ram your head against a brick wall.
While consulting to a big creative corporation, I met with a section of the creative staff. They complained about one “taste-filter” in the creative department. That person wouldn’t listen to new ideas and the line was failing. They also laughed at my being hired as a consultant, knowing nothing would change.
I ran into one of those staff people a couple of years later and asked if anything had been put in place from my meeting with them (trying to put innovation channels into place).
“No!” she replied. “And now the ‘taste-filter’ is going through menopause!”
Actually part two of The “Morons,” these are the odd excuses people use for why your idea won’t work or can’t be done. Personally, I have a huge collection of these excuses for my ideas. When someone without vision is in charge, they won’t just say, “no!” There will be an amusing and frustrating reason behind it.
In a meeting to brainstorm some new products, the meek and mild leader of the project kept making excuses for why one of my initiative ideas wouldn’t work. Although others there thought it was a good idea, the leader kept making excuses and the further I pushed for a valid reason as to why he didn’t even want to discuss it, much less explore the idea, he grew angry and finally reported me to human resources for “questioning (his) authority.”
After massive layoffs at the company for excruciatingly low sales, he is still employed. Sigh!
So… What Happens?
Usually, when people run up against these problems in trying to introduce innovation, they just stop thinking of ideas. No new ideas = no innovation. No innovation = the human race stagnates and perishes. That’s when damn, dirty apes take over the planet.
Seriously, people never stop coming up with ideas. I know many creatives, like myself, who keep a file of ideas. If my present employer doesn’t want them, then my next employer might. I’ve seen it and I’ve done it.
An idea never dies and despite the reasons as to why they are squashed, you must hold on to them for other chances that will arise. Like that orange sweater vest you have in the closet, it will come back into fashion one day… although I personally hope not… and you will once again be a “snappy” dresser.
How Do You Document YOUR Ideas?
When I was in high school, I kept a sketchbook of all my ideas and drawings. It was suppose to be my math notebook but some things just take precedence over unimportant things like Algebra. I still have those notebooks from my math, science and englushinger classes. A sketchbook, always carried at one’s side, is a wealth of documented ideas.
I would suggest, in these days of digital storage, you scan your sketchbook, scraps of paper or napkins with doodles on them and back them up. Sketchbooks are lost here and there, so take advantage of technology!
When the time comes to present an idea to your boss, there are several things to remember:
- Do you WANT to give up that idea? Maybe your employment is not worth giving up an idea that you could market yourself.
*Most corporations will have you sign an agreement that all ideas you have during your employment, on or off site, workday or weekend, are the property of the company. If you sign this agreement, beware of speaking about ideas or documenting them in your own, personal archives. Computer files can be subpoenaed in a lawsuit and time and date stamps will show when the idea was generated – best to overwrite files after leaving your employer.
- Write up the idea as a proposal as you would any creative brief and email it to the person to whom you report or the head of the department that handles innovation. Follow up with another email to make sure they received it. Print out all emails you have sent and received, place them in a file folder, take them home and place them in a filing box or cabinet for safety and ease of finding them when needed.
- Don’t keep your records at work or on your work computer! If you are fired, you will not have a chance to retrieve your files. Keep everything at home.
- Don’t bounce an idea off a coworker to see if they like it. Keep your trap shut! If the idea stinks, let the person to whom you are pitching it tell you. There’s no shame in pitching a bad idea… it might just be a matter of timing and not a stinky idea that won’t work.
- If the idea is turned down, keep it in mind for the future – an idea never dies, it just gets put back on the shelf. If you see a chance for it to be reintroduced later, try bringing it up again.
The Best Ideas Are Stolen!
I hate to frighten you but it’s better to know the pitfalls so you can better protect yourself. The mediocre people around you will want to play, too and they want to get a pat on the back for a great idea, whether it came out of their brain or not.
When a new technology was introduced at a former company at which I was employed, I was in a select group of people who were present at a meeting to review how it all worked. I was then asked to meet with various departments to brainstorm how the technology could be used. I wrote down ideas before each meeting and imparted them to each department head.
Down the road, each department head wrote reports on how they would use the technology for their product line. Sure enough, it was word-for-word of what I had said and corporate communications applauded the department heads for their innovation and ideas. After that, none of them would look me straight in the eye.
After that, I would send ideas via email before meetings. Unfortunately, that meant I wasn’t needed at meetings but I still had it all on record. In a company, “stealing” is an abstract term. Often the saying, “team player” is used when building innovation. The question is, who gets the year-end bonus for the idea? You want it to be you, of course!
As with the examples and painful memories I have imparted here, there are times you just can’t protect your ideas. You might mention something in a meeting and then someone there will mention it at another meeting and then they get the credit for an innovation. It’s better to listen and absorb and just email ideas AFTER the meeting or use the very-popular and aforementioned sketchbook during the meeting to jot down your ideas BEFORE blurting them out to those present. Most of the time, when people see you’ve written down the idea, they are shy about stealing ideas as they might get caught.
Sometimes, unfortunately, it comes down to who the corporation WANTS to have the credit. Sad to say but it’s corporate politics and it rules everything.
The Results You Want.
I can’t sit still when it comes to ideas. I want my employer to succeed and my ideas present innovations on which I want to work upon. I don’t expect a share of the millions the company will make, although a bonus would be nice. Generally, I guess I want to feel the love of a grateful CEO and the awe of peers. A coworker of mine, who witnessed my plight with ideation imparted some great advice: “sometimes,” he said, “you need to just put innovative ideas into your everyday work.”
Whether it’s a web site, brochure, logo or procedure in workflow, it’s the little things that get done easily and the proof has your name attached to it. Big ideas may get implemented only once in a lifetime and then people look to you to surpass the high bar you have set for yourself. With smaller steps, you can keep walking and moving forward. With daily innovation, you show yourself to be a strong team player. When small innovative ideas are available for others to emulate in their daily work, you elevate those around you and in many ways, that’s the smarter and safer way to exist in a company.
In my years of experience, people fear not only change but also those who strive to make change. It’s better, as with my coworker’s advice, to fly under the radar. Keep the idea sketchbook for yourself. Take the ideas and figure out how to apply them every day in small but innovative ways.
A coworker at one corporation managed to get a big innovation through to upper management. She was rewarded with a $50 gift certificate for the company’s product, at the company store and a letter of thanks from the CEO. Not exactly a windfall.
As for the big ideas, implement them for yourself, as I will cover in part two of this article.