Leadership Question #5: Where Do the Great Ideas Come From?

Continuing in my series of “20 Leadership Questions,” we come to the fifth question that Michael Smith asked when he interviewed me. This is one is related to the previous question about creativity.New Plant Just Beginning to Sprout - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/Zemdega, Image #5957821

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/Zemdega

Michael asked,

Where do the great ideas come from in your organization?”

The short answer is anywhere. They can come from:

  • Outside the organization. For example, Jon Dale, one of my Twitter followers and a graduate of Seth Godin’s alternative MBA program, suggested that we start building communities around specific author and genre brands. He began consulting with us, and, in the last year, we have launched Amish Living and MaxLucado Community, two very successful social media sites.
  • People in administrative roles. Joyce Dean-Wolfe, administrative assistant to one of our live event executives, came up with the idea of our All Access event for group leaders. It has proven to be a game-changer. We paid for 2,000 group leaders to come to Dallas to preview our Women of Faith conferences this year. It was expensive and risky. But it resulted in a huge increase in ticket sales for this year. It is proving to be one of the most profitable ideas we have seen in years.
  • People in middle management. Mike Mitchell, VP of Customer Service, and Joel Beasley, VP of Distribution, developed an “EZ Returns” program. This makes it easier for our customers to coordinate their product returns with us and to do it all online. Gabe Wicks, our VP of Design and MultiMedia, is another example. In the midst of the Great Recession, he suggested that we change our dress code to allow for jeans every day. This was a big morale booster at a time when, frankly, we needed it.
  • Even from senior management. In 2004, when I was a group vice president over several publishing divisions, I suggested to Allen Arnold, one of our marketing VPs, that we start a dedicated fiction division. He rose to the challenge and quadrupled our fiction revenue in just five years. Last year Thomas Nelson was the #1 Christian fiction publisher in our industry.

To cultivate the very best ideas, I need to do the following:

  1. Retain a beginner’s mind. Experience can be helpful, but it can also be the enemy of innovation. You know you are on dangerous ground when you catch yourself saying, “We tried something similar to that one time, and it didn’t work.” There are scores of reasons why it may not have worked that had nothing to do with the idea itself. Maybe it was poorly executed. Perhaps the timing was bad. Regardless, to find great ideas, you sometimes must start at the beginning and set aside your presuppositions.
  2. Be attentive to what you are hearing. Sometimes we miss great ideas because we aren’t paying attention. We subconsciously think that our ideas are best and don’t listen as we should. We have to start with the assumption that “the many are smarter than the few” (to steal the subtitle of James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds). If we will do this—and ask lots of questions—we will find a goldmine of ideas, buried in the experiences and aspirations of our colleagues.
  3. Don’t worry about who gets the credit. I think it was Zig Ziglar who once said, “There is no limit to what we can do if we don’t worry about who gets the credit.” This is so true. As a leader, you have to place a premium on great ideas and keep everyone’s ego—including your own—in check. The important thing is the idea. If you implement the right ideas, everyone will benefit.

Great ideas are your most important asset. To capture them, you must be intentional and create a culture where the idea-generators—your people—are valued and encouraged to think about how you can do things better.

Question: Where do the great ideas in your organization come from?
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  • http://twitter.com/dominicrajesh @dominicrajesh

    I have seen people searching for great ideas from books / blogs / experts and everywhere else and leave out those people just around them who have an excellent solution/idea!

    To listen to these people and implement their ideas, one definitely needs to have the "Don't worry about who gets the credit!" attitude which you have rightly pointed out!

    Thank you for sharing this with us!

  • http://www.validleadership.com James Castellano

    The best ideas often come from those who are tasked to complete the job. In our business, drivers provide a tremendous amount of information. The second area is new employees. They often bring a fresh insight to existing methods that may need changing.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      So true. Those who deal with the problems everyday, see obviously solutions that those in management miss.

  • http://www.godsabsolutelove.com patriciazell

    I think leaders would benefit from promoting the understanding that great ideas come from process, not just inspiration. Flexibility is a must, but all ideas need to go through the refining process. If a leader can build an atmosphere that welcomes new ideas and that provides time and space for the ideas to be worked out, he or she shouldn’t have a problem in finding an abundance of new concepts and solutions.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/BLichtenwalner Ben Lichtenwalner

    New Employees: To build on James comment above, new employees are an excellent source of creative ideas. Recent college graduates are great at thinking outside of the box and aligned well with that great market segment of young adults. Meanwhile, experienced hires offer the benefit of seeing how great ideas are implemented elsewhere, what works and what does not.

    Networking Groups: To build upon my comments earlier in this series, networking groups – whether local or virtual (such as LinkedIn groups, MENG or TENG) can also be an excellent source of new ideas. While these ideas may already be executed elsewhere, they may build inspiration for your own, unique variations or application in a different industry.

  • http://www.blissassociates.com Bill Bliss

    Another great question. A few years back I was working with the CEO/Owner of a 500 employee company and he wanted to get a handle on whether the culture he wanted in the company was actually present. One of the elements of the desired culture was that all 500 employees would feel welcome and empowered to present new ideas. I met with over 30 of the leaders and conducted a employee survey of the rest. One of the question asked was exactly what Michael's post is about "Where do the great ideas come from?"

    The answers shocked the CEO. While he thought he was creating the culture to promote the sharing of great ideas, 75% of the people said that Great ideas came from…the CEO himself! He had actually created an environment that gave most of the employees the perception that what ever he said was law and no one could challenge it – the exact opposite of what he stated that he wanted.

    My point is that we may believe that we are encouraging and accepting of ideas from multiple sources, yet we need to verify this with real hard data one way or another.


    • http://twitter.com/mrmarkmcdonald Mark McDonald

      How did you get past this? Was it possible to change the corporate culture?

  • http://www.PurposeDrivenBroker.com Dan Foster

    I'm really enjoying this series Mike. I've found that some of the best ideas come from getting my team together and just brainstorming ideas and solutions in an open forum. The key is to not shoot down any idea or solution but to start the flow of thinking and creativity in a room and allow it to grow and take you places that are difficult to get to alone or with an agenda. I love watching how someone will build on someone else's idea in a way neither of them could have imagined.

    Love your tips as well!


  • http://www.bigb94.webs.com Brandon

    Good stuff here! I personally find that I am not the most "creative" person, but learning from others helps me a lot. I find that paying attention to what others are saying helps me be more creative.

  • http://www.thegetintentionalmovement.com Ryan Jenkins

    Solid posting Mike!
    Most of my ideas come from listening to other leader's stories. But with that it takes asking the right questions to the right leaders to uproot the needed solution.
    I'm all in about the "retain a beginners mind". I think having child-like wonder and being genuingly curious can spur so much positive change/ideas!
    Great content!!

  • http://www.danieldecker.net Daniel Decker

    Another outstanding response to the question. I specifically like the Joyce Dean-Wolf point. In an economy where so many are putting the brakes on risk, it's great to hear tangible examples that illustrate going for it. Especially nice that going for it worked. :)

  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/kaikunane ThatGuyKC

    Since I started following your blog a few months ago I've been challenged, inspired and educated.

    Challenged as a future leader (at work and in the church).

    Inspired as an amateur writer/blogger to keep at it.

    Educated as a current MBA student looking forward down a career map to the unlimited end.

    I might move to Nashville just to try and work for Thomas Nelson.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Thanks for your kind words. I am honored.

  • http://www.davidbmclaughlin.com davidbmc

    I always like to remember that great ideas also come from THE CUSTOMER! We always need to be listening very carefully.

    • http://twitter.com/mrmarkmcdonald Mark McDonald

      David, I find in Church work the last person we often ask is the customer. Not that it should be about the customer, but so often we don’t ask them what they need or want from the Church.

      Great thought that we explore what our customers (attenders) think about the organisation (the Church or Parish).

      • http://twitter.com/BobEwoldt Robert Ewoldt

        I agree; regular businesses do customer surveys to find out what their customers want. Churches, while they can’t change their core “product,” there ARE things that they can change to make their organization better, and some self-study wouldn’t hurt anyone.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/success2you John Richardson

    Some of the best ideas I've found have come from your blog, Mike. This is a treasure trove of ideas, especially from your extensive comment section. Another great place to find and TEST ideas is Toastmasters. I'm so glad I've tested some of my so called brilliant ideas before my TM group before taking them into real life. They have helped me modify, tweak, and expand ideas to make them work so much better. In our local TM group the speeches and ideas from some of the most unexpected people have truly changed the way I look at things. Having a beginners mindset like you say in point one is so important. The old "curse of knowledge" can be a killer when it comes to ideas.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, John!

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  • http://jeffgoins.myadventures.org Jeff Goins

    A lot of great ideas from my organization come from our constituents, that is, that people whom we are serving. I think businesses and nonprofits need to more intentionally ask their customers and potential customers, "What could we be doing to better serve you?" The answers are often humbling, but usually helpful.

  • http://twitter.com/mrmarkmcdonald Mark McDonald

    I really needed to read this today. I have been having a problem with a Personal assistant, but only because I think all the ideas have to come from me. Now I realize that it is really my problem. If I can just learn to support the ideas of the people in administrative roles I would be better off. One of the PA’s told me today that she didn’t understand a lot of church jargon. This was an opportunity for me to explore that; instead I just walked away from the conversation unaware of what jargon we use. Tomorrow I will ask her, I might learn something.

  • http://twitter.com/BobEwoldt Robert Ewoldt

    I think there are so many great ideas that come from people who read. People who read, and read widely, come up with some of the most innovative ideas. They’ll get ideas from outside their discipline or area, and can make really great contributions.

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