When Great Employees Have Bad Ideas

A leadership playbook for handling bad ideas, identifying good ones, and nurturing your underachievers into stars

One of the most under-appreciated opportunities any leader has is to get better at receiving ideas from their team.

I was out at dinner with a friend of mine when she told me a story. She’d just recently pitched her boss an idea for a way the company could improve. He gave her some excuse for why the idea wouldn’t work. The excuse was lame, and it made her skeptical of his judgment.
 
She was put off, annoyed by the slight. She thought her idea was good, sure, but more important than that was the way he responded. It made her feel like she was very unlikely to go outside her job description and make herself vulnerable like that again.

Her boss —in giving a passive excuse and failing to engage the idea —actively hurt the company. Not just by missing out on one good idea, but by losing a great employee.

At that moment, I realized I’d never given much thought to the way I received ideas from my team.

I didn’t just ignore people, but I didn’t (often) take their suggestions either, and I had definitely shrugged off my fair share of what I saw as “bad” or unworkable ideas. 
 
Since that day, I’ve given a lot of thought to employee ideas and how to respond to them, and I’ve developed something of a playbook for doing so. In retrospect, responding to and managing employee ideas is something that doesn’t get talked about enough, but it is a vital people skill for a leader to develop. Ideas are not an infinite resource. The actions that you take as a manager and as a leader can either demotivate people and reduce the number of good ideas that you get as an organization, or they can motivate people and help them come up with better ideas faster.
 
You can shrug off people’s bad ideas — but that’s not going to do anything to help you build a stronger team that comes up with better ideas.

3 Axioms of Bad Ideas

A good idea is something that’s going to help the business make money, whether that’s directly or indirectly (by reducing your bus count, for example). A bad idea is anything that’s not.
 
In starting to understand the problem of bad ideas and how to deal with them, three things stood out to me as important:

  1. The vast majority of ideas are bad (including the ones you think of)
  2. Ideas are usually bad because people don’t see the machinery behind them
  3. Not everyone is a thought leader (and that’s okay)

The first step to being a better leader when it comes to ideas is realizing and making clear to your team that everyone comes up with terrible ideas all the time
 
The best producer of new ideas in your company maybe has a good idea 1 time out of every 5. If 20% of your feedback is good and positive, that’s tremendous. Most ideas are bad, and the fact that you have bad ideas doesn’t make you stupid.
 
Most of the time, ideas are bad mainly because the people offering them don’t have sufficient visibility into all the different inputs that the idea hinges on. The fewer inputs you have visibility into, the easier it is to come up with ideas, and the more likely it will be that those ideas will be unworkable.
 
Lastly, not everyone is going to be bringing great business ideas to the table at every turn. Not everyone’s brain works that way and that’s fine. Those people are often bringing initiative in other ways that are extremely valuable as well.

How to Turn Down a Bad Idea

The most important skill and the one you will use the most when it comes to receiving ideas from employees is learning to turn down an idea with grace.
 
Sometimes, a suggestion from an employee will really catch you off guard. If you’ve allowed your self-worth to get tied up with the status quo, it can plain sting. A simple idea — a suggestion that your company needs to seriously change something that it’s doing — can almost seem personal. 
 
You can’t let your emotions get in the way or get defensive, especially at first. The moment when the idea is first pitched is the most critical, because the person pitching it is at their most vulnerable, so don’t go through the 5 Stages of Grief. 
 
You need some kind of process — I like to:

  • Reserve all judgment on the idea’s quality in the moment
  • Write the idea down in a shared doc
  • Sleep on it
  • After a day, follow up on the idea with the person that pitched it

Often, both parties will be less enthusiastic about the idea the next day. That’s how you know you definitely had a bad idea and you can all move on.
 
When the two parties don’t agree the next day, then you should probe the disagreement further to figure out just what’s going on:

  • If their enthusiasm for the idea has grown, what are their incentives? What does this idea help them do or help them achieve?
  • If your enthusiasm has lessened, what is discouraging you from thinking that it’s a good idea?

When you disagree on the quality of an idea, then you should ask questions like these to probe your assumptions deeper and deeper until you get to the root assumptions — back to your first principles. 
 
Reasonable people can agree to disagree when it comes to first principles, but if you can’t find any point of agreement, then it can be a sign that someone is not a good fit for their role.

How to Build a Team That Contributes Great Ideas

When you start to think more about the kinds of ideas people have, you realize that idea generation is a more complicated topic than it may seem.
 
People’s ideas are often tinted with whatever their primary goals are, whether that’s helping the company grow or whether that’s developing deeper skills in a specific field. Sometimes those goals align with the goals of the company, and sometimes they’re individual contributor goals, which can be orthogonal, or even antithetical, to the goals of the team. 
 
Imagine a bicep that only wants to do curls, and never wants to help put on clothes or feed you. That kind of antithetical.
 
It’s an oversimplification, but usually you see junior people offering up ideas more tailored to their own development, and more senior people offering up ideas more tailored to the team. The important things you need to get across to people are:

  • The ideas that are good are ideas that benefit the entire team, not just one person or group of people
  • Be humble — not all ideas will be good ideas
  • There’s inertia at all companies

I remember being full of ideas myself, offering my ideas excitedly to my managers, having my ideas rejected, and never realizing that I was neglecting to think whether the ideas I was pitching would actually be good for the team
 
The problem is that it’s easy to know what’s best for you. You have certain goals. You know the environment around you. You know what your problems are and what causes you stress in your daily life. You don’t necessarily know what your colleague’s stresses are, or how all of this looks to other people in your organization. What you don’t see is the context — what’s best for the company as a whole. 
 
As a leader, you can point out the difference. You should also listen — sometimes the ideas that you will hear are really expressions of people’s stresses and anxieties that should be addressed whether or not the idea ultimately gets adopted.
 
You also need to make sure that you’re hiring for humbleness. Arrogance is a bad trait in any employee, but it’s especially toxic when it comes to pitching ideas inside a company. Arrogance makes it impossible to accept that you might have a single bad idea. You need people to be okay with that possibility.
 
Lastly, you need people who are willing to work hard to turn their ideas into a reality. Many IC-oriented ideas are relatively simple to implement because they only really benefit a specific person. Most team-oriented ideas are a challenge to implement because they affect everyone on the team — and that’s precisely why they’re so important.

What to Do When You Find a Good Idea

Having a good idea is 99% about understanding a problem well.

If the person pitching an idea can’t tell you what the exact problem being solved is, then that’s a clear indicator that the solution probably isn’t going to work.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” — Einstein

But if the idea corresponds to a clear problem for the team, and the idea makes sense as something that would help the team, and you (and the person pitching it) both see it is a potentially workable solution, then you have a good idea on your hands.
 
Once you have an actually good idea, someone has to be ultimately responsible for that idea becoming reality. It takes a lot of work to make an idea real, even at a lean, nimble, forward-thinking startup™. 
 
Even the smallest companies have some level of inertia — a kind of natural conservatism — that you need to overcome if you want to bring about change. That’s part of the process of building a strong company. Decisions have sticking power, and you have to do more than show that an alternative is better — if you really want to make it happen, you have to own the idea and push the team across the finish line yourself.
 
Ideally, it’s the person who thought of the idea.
 
Often, the person who thought of an idea isn’t the person who would normally implement the idea in the regular chain of command. Often, it’s worth forgoing that and having them do it anyways for three reasons:

  1. The person who came up with the idea will often have more personally invested in seeing it executed
  2. The person who came up with it is usually closer to the actual process being adjusted, and so they understand more of the day-to-day of doing it
  3. The person who came up with the idea gets some valuable cross-training or up-training (training in a higher-value activity)

There also needs to be a full launch plan for the idea, from having it fully scoped out to making sure that everyone is actually using it. That’s critical — using it. 
 
The curse of internal projects is launching, getting everyone together for the announcement, then the announcement ending and… everyone going on with their lives. Time passes, and by the time you realize no one’s using the new internal dashboard or documentation tool, it’s been too long. People don’t care enough anymore.
 
If actually using your new tool or process isn’t a part of your launch plan, you’re being unrealistic — the “Field of Dreams” style of development (“build it and they will come”) can leave you especially depressed when it comes to internal projects. 
 
Lastly, you need to have a metric you’re going to use to understand whether the idea was well-executed, and that metric needs be transparent. Forthright evaluation of ideas is important if you want to encourage everyone on your team to feel comfortable submitting ideas while knowing they’ll be judged along the same dimensions as all of their peers.

Why Ideas Matter

If even the best employee is only going to submit a good idea 20% of the time, then it seems almost ludicrously wasteful to think about what to do with “bad ideas.” They’re everywhere, unworkable, and they take up both the pitcher and the pitchee’s time and energy dealing with.
 
Many people choose to just ignore bad ideas. Of course, they often do it in a way that’s semi-pleasant for the person pitching the idea. Maybe they say something like “Wow! Great idea,” then promise to follow up — and never bring it up again. 
 
But you have insight as the leader of the organization. You can tell easily which ideas are good and which are bad. You know how much inertia there is in your organization and you know what it takes to overcome it. You need to help the people with ideas understand all of that as well.
 
If you just shrug off bad ideas, and don’t develop processes for helping people not just come up with better ideas but make them a reality, then you erode those people’s trust. And once you’ve lost people’s trust, you’ve lost them.