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The Corporate Curmudgeon: Good ideas need action, not buy-ins, to become reality

The Corporate Curmudgeon: Good ideas need action, not buy-ins, to become reality

"As for a real-world example, one is just happening in my world that involves, of all things, a youth soccer league. A coach in this league also coaches a local college team. He had a game the next Saturday and had permission from the opposing college team to involve some young kids from the youth league.

The kids escorted the players onto the field and at halftime played a scrimmage game under the lights in front of the crowd. Needless to say, the kids were thrilled to death, the parents incredibly proud and the fans enjoyed the spectacle.

When asked to post a story and picture in the local newspaper, the youth league officials claimed it was not fair to the other teams that did not get a chance to play. Equality for all or nothing for any."

That example was offered on the Harvard Business Review website in response to a post by John Kotter on how ideas get killed. I appreciated the soccer example because it shows how fear comes in drag, in this case, as "fairness." No one ever says, "I'm too scared; someone might criticize me." No, the game of idea killing requires ruses, and that's when fear becomes "concern" or, just as deadly, "helpful suggestions."

The reason John Kotter was blogging about idea killers was to promote a book he co-authored called "Buy-In: Saving Your Good Idea from Getting Shot Down." The book offers a vaguely entertaining if overlong account of selling the public on an idea for new computers for the public library.

The climax of the story comes when there is a vote and thanks to the persuasiveness of the protagonist, it passes. However, I can't remember the last time in corporate life a meaningful decision was put to a vote. There is something much more sinister preventing organizations from adopting ideas: consensus. Here's an IBP (Important Business Principle): If everyone agrees, it's either too late or not worth doing.

Which is why the best organizations are nothing like democracies. And that's why the term "buy-in" is misleading. Someone tries something new; it works, and opposition dies away.

Thomas Kuhn, in his work on scientific revolutions - the same work which also popularized the term "paradigm shift," popularized this quote from Max Planck: "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."

Speaking of dying, Kotter and Whitehead's book lists 24 idea killers; however, even so, the authors have left off the most effective one. As someone who does creativity work for companies, I know this is the killer of killers: "Great idea! Count me in!"

That sounds like victory, right? But "count me in" is where the idea comes to depend on someone else to contribute. That's where the Zen of inaction appears, objecting by non-objections, where the idea becomes a plan on someone's to-do list and it sinks beneath the waves of prioritization.

An idea is nothing till it's an experiment. You don't need a buy-in, you need to try it out in such a way as to get the data that is good enough to kill off the opposition. That's how ideas progress: not by contributor buy-in, but by opposition die-off.

Dale Dauten is co-founder of AgreementHouse.com, a company that resolves business disputes. Write to him in care of King Features Syndicate, 300 W. 57th St., 15th Floor, New York, NY 10019, or at dale@dauten.com.


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