Sunday, November 21, 2010

Killing an idea: The good, the bad and the ugly way

If you are serious about innovation, then killing an idea should be normal. And even if you feel, you don’t kill ideas, chances are high ideas are getting killed anyway by not allocating resources to them. So the action need not be that of commission (pulling the trigger) but could very well be that of omission (not supplying enough oxygen). Hence people serious about innovation activity don’t debate whether we should kill ideas or not. The real question is, “What is a good way to kill ideas?” In this article let’s look at the good, the bad and the ugly way to kill an idea.

The ugly: Alan Robinson and Dean Shroeder narrate this story of a lieutenant colonel in their book “Ideas are free”. In the mid 1960s, as the Vietnam War was intensifying, the lieutenant colonel put an idea into one of Pentagon’s suggestion box. His office produced a constant stream of reports for senior officers, all with the fame format – an executive summary, a table of contents, and a thick divider sheets with protruding alphabetically ordered tables to identify the various sections. The divider sheets came in standard packets of twenty six, one for each letter of the alphabet. Most reports had only 5 or 6 sections and hence only 5 or 6 dividers in each packet were used. Lieutenant colonel suggested that if one report used sections A through F, begin the next report with section G. He thought his idea would save the office several thousands of dollars every year. One day he was summoned to the office of his commanding officer.

“Is this yours?” the general asked.

“Yes, sir”

“Eat it”, the general said.

“Excuse me, sir?”

“Eat it. Now!” the general ordered. The lieutenant colonel stepped forward, took the paper from his superior, put it in his mouth, chewed it up and swallowed it. He was abruptly dismissed and nothing was ever said about it. Decades later, after that lieutenant colonel retired as army’s top generals, he still remembered the incident.

The bad: Dan Ariely is a professor of behavioural economics at Duke University and also at MIT and known more for his best-selling book “Predictably Irrational”. He narrates following incident during an interview at PurpleCar in July this year: Dan met with a group of 80 people around May-Jun 2010 from this big big software company based in Seattle. This group had been working in an incubator on some new ideas. They came up with this idea that they thought would revolutionize the computer industry. They met with the CEO a week before Dan met them and CEO told them that he’s burying the project. They had worked on it for two years and Dan felt he had never seen a more deflated group of 80 people in his life. It was bad way to just bluntly telling people that their idea is killed. The CEO did better than the army general but could do much better. How?

The good: Dan did something interesting. He asked the group, “What would you do if you were to kill a project and not deflate the project team?” Lots of ideas came up. What if the CEO allowed them to present their work? Not just the product but the thought process and ideology around it etc. and then say, “Look we have decided to cancel it but there is lots to learn from it.” Or let the team share working prototypes with people in the company and see what they feel about it (something similar actually happened with Google’s AdSense)

Perhaps Bill Packard of Hewlett-Packard (HP) understood some of this several decades ago. This is how David Hewlett recalls Bill’s “hat-wearing process” in “The HP Way”. Upon first being approached by a creative inventor with enthusiasm for a new idea, Bill immediately put on a hat called “enthusiasm”. He would listen, express excitement where appropriate and appreciation in general, while asking a few general and not too pointed questions. A few days later he would get back to inventor wearing “inquisitor” hat. This was a time for very pointed questions, a thorough probing of the idea, lots of give-and-take. Without a final decision, the session would be adjourned. Shortly thereafter, Bill would put on his “decision” hat and meet once again with the inventor and with appropriate logic and sensitivity, judgment was rendered. No wonder many HP folks remembered the method with admiration.


  1. Vijay Anand, VP & MD of Intuit India sent following input by e-mail:

    I liked the blog entry – killing ideas is important. We call it fail fast – rather than the CEO killing ideas, it would be better if the team were to kill their own idea based on the results from testing with customers – we call it Customer Driven Innovation. Even though we hold internal idea contests, judge ideas and award prizes, we feel a better way is for the innovator to take the concept to customers, identify the big pain point and then solve it well. If there isn’t a big pain point, or if we are unable to solve it well (customer response) we encourage innovators to kill it – themselves!

  2. @ This is a great information it can help me, thanks for sharing