Good Ideas are the Enemy of Innovation

When I worked at central office of a school district we launched a serious effort to collect ideas from everyone in the district about how we might improve.  We held listening sessions where we encouraged people to bring their best ideas, we hung bulletin boards around the district and encouraged people to pin their best ideas up, and we created a special email account for people to share their good ideas.  Our goal was to be inclusive and to uncover good ideas.  We were earnest on both accounts,  In fact, we would sometimes modestly say, we haven’t cornered the market on good ideas here at central office, so let’s hear from everyone.”  Unfortunately, it turns out that the hunt for good ideas was probably a trap and bad for innovation.  As the researcher and author Michael Schrage (Innovators Hypothesis and A Testable Idea is Better than a Good Idea) argues, “good ideas are bad for innovation.” 

In his research Schrage found that organizations that encouraged, talked up and celebrated good ideas were consistent underachievers when it came to innovation.  Schrage observed that successful innovator focused on testing hypotheses.  He wrote, “If you want to quickly, cheaply, and productively transform your organization’s innovation culture forbid any and all discussion of good ideas and insist people start framing their innovation proposals in the form of testable hypotheses.” 

Schrage paraphrases one of the most famous maxims in military history in his HBR article, “Innovation amateurs talk good ideas; innovation experts talk testable hypotheses.”  Too much time in my school district was spent behaving like innovation amateurs and almost no time spent acting like experts.  The cost of that mistake is that we tested no ideas, but spent considerable time falling in love with our game-changing solutions.  In our meeting everything sounded fantastic and many of the things we created were pretty cool, but here’s the thing, most made little or not impact. 

The things we launched that worked were usually only partial ideas that we tested early (usually before we wanted to).  In one case we wanted to launch a new portal for teachers to gain access to student achievement data.  We spent about six months interviewing vendors, experiencing demos, and developing a data transition plan.  As we were about to sign the big contract and begin loading data, one of our programmers developed a lite version of a data portal in one weekend (just to see if he could do it).  He suggested that we hold off on agreeing to a big data portal contract and see how teachers responded to his lite version (it had about three features).  He observed teachers using the product and then made improvements based on what he learned for the lite version.  Within a couple of months he had built a fully functional, elegant, and game-changing tool.  This wasn’t a break through idea, but the process of developing a prototype (or lite version) quickly and improving rapidly was a new approach and it worked.   

If you teams or teachers in your school system to be more innovative, stop asking them to just submit good ideas.  Start asking them how to test this idea.  Ask: what needs to be true for this idea to be good? How might you test that assumption?  What measurement tools will you use?  As Schrage says, ”The harsh reality is that good ideas have to be tested. Why not insist that people undergo the rigor and discipline of crafting a testable hypothesis? That’s how good ideas get converted into real value.”