November 30, 2010 — Vol. 3, Issue 11
Message from the Academy Director
The Good Idea Paradox
Organizational support for good ideas can be a mixed blessing.
Do what you want as long as I don't know about it, a manager once told me. I could run with any idea I wanted, but if something went wrong, it was my neck on the line. I found this both freeing and discouraging. While I had the freedom to experiment, it bothered me that if a good idea did fail, I was left to deal with the consequences.
I believed then (and still do) that if something went wrong, the responsibility for dealing with it rested with me. I also believed (and still do) that a good manager would acknowledge the situation and ask, "What do you need from me?" He or she should provide the tools or support to solve the problem.
Years later I visited one of NASA's centers, and during a discussion with some engineers, I learned about a unique tiger team activity that could potentially save money and streamline operations in its business area. This activity was supported by the organization but had almost complete autonomy.
When I recommended to one engineer that the Academy might highlight some of the good innovative practices of his team, he seemed hesitant. I later learned that this reluctance stemmed from my "management" status. From this experience and others like it, I have come to find that the survival of good ideas, particularly "quiet innovations," depends on the ability to fly under the radar. If good ideas are exposed, there seem to be two outcomes: 1) the organization looks for ways to "control" the innovative approach, or, 2) management wants to help.
At first glance, the second outcome does not sound problematic, but it introduces the challenge of fully realizing a good idea with "too many cooks in the kitchen." Good ideas tend to address an existing problem and germinate among a very small number of people until they're ready to be introduced to the organization at large.
I don't think organizations intentionally suppress good ideas. They live and die by them. Good ideas need support to be fully realized, but they also dread support to avoid unintended consequences.
So what is the solution? Money is the knee-jerk answer, but I'm reluctant to agree. Most good ideas are risky at the outset, whereas most organizations tend to fund safe ideas. The challenge organizations face is to find ways to cultivate good ideas by asking, "What do you need from me?" One widely touted solution to this is the approach taken by Google, among other organizations, which is to give employees autonomy and dedicated time to pursue their own ideas. This poses challenges for a public organization like NASA, but it's worth noting that some highly innovative firms are finding ways to help give life to good ideas.
The trick is to avoid interfering too much and be willing to accept the possibility that an idea might flop. For now, "infant" good ideas are rare and generally hidden, but they don't have to stay that way.