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

8 comments on “When Trying to Improve an Idea Does More Harm
  • Great topic, Ben.

    Never over-engineer your product. Or Google will enter your business 🙂

    Guy Kawasaki says to startup founders “Don’t worry, be crappy”.

    Go hit the market ASAP even if you are not sure your product is 100% bug free. Let the customers vote with their $$ and let you know what needs to be fixed. Then fix only that.

  • I don’t agree with this advice. When a junior developer comes to you with a technical proposal, I think one of your primary goals should be to add value — to see whether their proposal handles everything it was designed to handle, to check whether there’s a more elegant alternative they have overlooked, to consider how their proposal integrates with the broader environment it will operate within, and so forth. These are precisely the kinds of things that someone with more experience might have an intuitive feel for and that a more junior coworker might have missed.

    Do you really think that a mature coworker is going to become 50% less motivated if they receive this sort of constructive criticism? Rather than just rubberstamping the idea with “Gee, I think that’s great”, you’ve done them the favor of thinking deeply (one would hope) about their proposal. That demonstrates that you think their work is important, and you’re ultimately saving them time and improving the quality of their work in the long run, at least if you’re any good at your job. I don’t think that reviewing their proposal and making suggestions for improvement amounts to “robbing him/her of idea ownership.”

    In other words, I think that this sort of technical oversight is an important part of the job of a technical lead / technical manager (*not* a CEO, though). That said, the goal should of course be to add value, not just to demonstrate how smart you are — and you should be careful to deliver your suggestions in a way that is constructive, and that emphasizes the fact that for the most part you agree with the proposed idea.

  • After reading the first page of that Harvard Business Review article, I’m left wondering what brought on this astonishing moment of candor from ‘the experts’:

    “…clever people…know very well that you must employ them to get their knowledge and skills. If an organization could capture the knowledge embedded in clever people’s minds and networks, all it would need is a better knowledge-management system. The failure of such systems to capture tacit knowledge is one of the great disappointments of knowledge-management initiatives to date.”

    I’m surprised to see management’s true agenda stated so baldly– they want your brain, you clever highly creative staff person, but what a drag it is to have to deal with your inconvenient corpus, and even worse, your independent personality.

    Thanks, management.

    I suppose this is what the quest for artificial intelligence is really all about– to eliminate that pesky variable in human resources– the humanity.

    After all, it’s the only way management can control creative intelligence.

    Nothing like the academic take on business.

  • Vince,

    You’ve very well distilled that insight. Incidentally it aligns very well with my latest blog post.

    I think it’s because managements while open to borrowing ideas to improve performance, hate to deal with the constructive cynicism emitted by the *clever people* – I’d like to use the expression “curmudgeons”.
    I think it’s because managements are quick to prejudge, not recognizing a curmudgeon’s focus that invariably discards on purpose, social hierarchy and exaltedness, ending up calling many a pretender’s bluff.

    Sure they must be trying hard to devise a mechanism to extract that knowledge (osmosis?) without having to deal with the jarring persona. There’s a high likelihood of it appearing as the fattest item under “expenditure on R&D” in their balance sheets.

  • Krishna,

    Sorry I got here late. I enjoyed Winokur’s portable curmudgeon, and your commentary.

    Thanks for the implication that I might share some of the curmudgeon’s admirable qualities.

    I’ve been practicing curmudgeonliness since I was five years old– it was the discrepancy between what adults told me the world was like and what the world was actually like that motivated me to take up the curmudgeonly attitude.;-)

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