How Iteration-itis Kills Good Ideas


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“We never see any good ideas,” lamented a senior executive. “People bring us ideas. But they just don’t have any . . . magic.”At first, I found the comment surprising. I had just begun to get to know the company, and it seemed to me to be brimming with innovation energy, particularly among young employees who would regularly throw out creative “What if’s” during casual conversations.

A month later, it was clear that the problem — as is almost always the case — wasn’t a lack of raw ideas. Instead, there was a problem with the process that an idea generator had to go through before they stood in front of senior leadership. The company, it turned out, had a deep case of iteration-itis.

You see, before anything made it onto the agenda of the top management’s biweekly meeting, it was vetted. And screened. And debated. And re-jiggered. The idea generator had to show the idea to their line manager. To key functional representatives. To key staff members of senior leaders. Maybe even to one or two members of leadership. Every person who saw the idea would express a clear point of view, and the poor idea generator had to figure out how to integrate seemingly contradictory feedback.

By the time idea generators had gone through this gauntlet of gate-keepers, their ideas became watered down and wafer thin — acceptable to everyone, exciting to no one.

How can you tell whether your company suffers from iteration-itis? Here’s one simple test. Have someone working on an idea note in the file name of their PowerPoint slides or equivalent the number of meetings they have had to discuss and refine the idea (“Cool Disruptive Idea V6”). Consider even putting a visual of an iconic Hollywood clapboard on the first slide to bring this to life. If that numbers creeps above 15, it is a warning sign. Once you cross 30, watch out.

That’s not to say that idea generators shouldn’t get feedback. They should. But too much feedback transforms formerly interesting ideas into well-documented bowls of mush.

Here’s how you can treat a case of iteration-itis. One simple technique is to organise low resolution ways to expose leaders to rough ideas. It’s not surprising that leaders have high expectations for formal presentations. But imagine instead a high school science fair where people with ideas have a poster board that explains what they are thinking. Leadership can wander the room and stop to discuss ideas that catch their attention.

Another approach is to document different criteria for early-stage ideas. Leadership can clearly communicate what a good rough idea looks like, stopping well-intentioned gate-keepers from iterating away an idea’s most interesting parts.

Think about involving new voices in the screening process. Early stage venture capitalists or angel investors, for example, are used to reacting to raw ideas. They ask tough questions for sure, but they also have the ability to see and bring out hidden beauty. It’s an intuition the good ones have learned from years of practice.

Finally, switch innovation from academic to active by encouraging idea generators to test their critical assumptions early. In other words, instead of having idea generators get the opinions of dozens of gate-keepers, have them generate data from active experimentation. (I’ll have more to say about this in a future post.)

I have yet to meet a corporation that isn’t swimming in great ideas. If you are a leader and you aren’t seeing them, starting looking for signs of a bad case of iteration-itis.

This post originally appeared at Harvard Business Review.

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