When Trying to Improve an Idea Does More Harm

Legendary executive coach Marshall Goldsmith has an interesting post about the connection between offering feedback on someone’s idea and reducing that person’s commitment to follow-through by robbing him/her of idea ownership. Excerpt:

One of the classic interpersonal challenges I see in brilliant, technically gifted people is their desire to "add value," especially to other people’s ideas.

When does this occur? 

Imagine that you are an entry-level employee. I am your manager. You come to me with an idea — which you think is great. You have been working on this idea for months and are really excited about what you have developed. I like the idea.

Rather than just saying, “great idea!” — being the brilliant, technically gifted person I am, I may well say, “That is a very good idea. Why don’t you add this to it?”

This could well be a case of trying to add "too much value," and here’s the problem: the quality of the idea may go up 5% with my suggestions, but your commitment to its execution may go down 50%. It is no longer your idea; as your manager, I have now made it my idea.

It’s a good point. Even though I’m not a "brilliant, technically-gifted person," I’ve still fallen prey to the tendency of trying to "add too much value": When someone comes to me with an idea, and I agree with 95% of it, I offer my enthusiasm but also try to refine his thinking about the other 5%. Stupid.

A great idea only matters if someone executes on it, so if someone comes to me with a great idea I should focus on motivating them to execute, not trying to optimize a minor aspect of it. Later, details can be hashed out. But it’d be a pity to quash a creative spark early on.

In other words, I need to remember The 80% Rule: If you’re at least 80% in agreement with someone, you’re solidly "with them." And when it comes to new ideas, if you’re solidly with the person, all energies should be focused on increasing the chances of follow-through, increasing the chances that the person who generated the idea will commit to executing on it.

Related Post: Doers vs. Talkers

Thanks to Ramit Sethi for the pointer

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