The Editor's Page -- Don't Just Say 'No'

Leadership lessons on killing bad ideas.

One of the most important things a leader does is to say "no"-- to bad opportunities, to bad partnerships, and, most importantly, to bad ideas. Yet how you say no is every bit as important as the decision itself, if you want to preserve the dignity, creativity, and enthusiasm of the partners, clients, and employees behind the occasional bad idea. Fortunately, there are a hundred ways to kill a bad idea, and only one involves saying no. To wit: Ignore it. Especially effective during brainstorming meetings, since most smart people will interpret your failure to acknowledge their opinions (or even their presence) as evidence that his or her idea must have been really bad. Unfortunately, the people with really bad ideas may not get the hint, forcing you to say . . . I'll think about it. For those clueless souls who persist in pushing a bad idea even in the face of complete silence, a polite "I'll think about it" commits you to nothing and usually provides enough recognition to allow them to move on to their next hare-brained idea. Unfortunately, sometimes a bad idea, aggressively promoted in a closed room, will build up a head of steam by gathering the bored and the indifferent behind it like lemmings to the sea. The only face-saving way to derail this train to disaster may be to suggest that your team . . . Get some other thoughts on it. There's always hope that exposing a bad idea to the light of other opinions will cause it to wither and die. Just in case it doesn't, however, you can always . . . Form a committee. Possibly the single most effective method available, because committees are where ideas, good or bad, go to die. Make sure you appoint a solid mix of the bad idea's proponents and a group of naysayers who object to anything new. Most important, give the committee a year-long charter (but no money) to come up with recommendations on how to implement the bad idea company-wide. Should the committee fail, however, and actually deliver a report in a reasonable time frame, you could as a last resort . . . Ask for a complete business plan. Request five-year pro formas and market analyses. This is the H-bomb of idea killing, because nobody in their right mind will complete a business plan for a bad idea, especially if you don't relieve them of their current duties. To make doubly sure, don't set a deadline-just say, "Whenever you get to it." After three months without providing a proposal, the person or persons behind the bad idea won't ever mention it again for fear of being asked about their nonexistent business plan. Of course, if the team does produce a plan, and the idea does start to make sense, you can always declare it . . . A good idea. And why not? After all, you thought about it, you surveyed others, you formed a committee, and you asked for a business plan, didn't you? What's a leader for, anyway?

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