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3 reasons innovative ideas aren’t enough (and what to do about it)

6 min read


How many times have you knocked it out of the park on the analysis and recommendation — had people clapping you on the back and sending e-mails of support — only to watch your brilliant business innovation wither and die after bumping up against the agendas, priorities and, yes, stupidities, of the leadership dynamics above and beyond you?

Good ideas aren’t enough to make great leaders

If you’ve ever sat there looking at the dry husk of your stupendous, innovative, amazing idea, wondering what went wrong, rest assured you’re not alone. Sometimes it’s enough to make you want to give up, but I hope you won’t. I hope you’ll take a fresh look at the process and realize that great leaders who achieve meaning, success and joy in their careers master the process of packaging and pitching innovative ideas through the inevitable — and necessary — gauntlet of criticism and competition.

Once they make it over the coals a few times, they’ve earned the right to keep shepherding good ideas, many of which aren’t even their own. This journey works in the smallest of settings to the biggest. The gauntlet is an essential part of every leader’s success.

Many would-be leaders shy away from building support for their wacky, cool or even incrementally innovative ideas. The fire walk through the politics, pettiness, competition and ego seems overwhelming and wasteful after all the energy and intelligence that went into the idea. But that’s why those people are would-be leaders. Real leaders recognize that the business politics of getting a good idea through are part of the process. It doesn’t always take an awesome salesman (or woman) to succeed, but it absolutely takes a salable idea and a champion who can bring its best features to light.

I have a client on the brink of this realization, a senior executive working to get ready to move into the big leagues. Exhausted by managing the details, she fights the politics and wishes “rational” minds prevailed. I’m working to help her understand the tremendous opportunity she has to master the process of packaging and pitching good ideas, and how it will catapult her if she can accept and embrace the process.

3 reasons you want to run the gauntlet

Here are three reasons why the painful and harrowing pitch journey through political layers can help my client — and you.

  1. Business innovation must survive its trial by fire to achieve credibility. To bring an innovation into reality, you need others’ resources on your side. For people to allocate resources (their support, dollars or time), they have to believe in it. Until they run their own traps on it, they feel at risk because they know others will do the same, so you have to let them examine the issue and help persuade them the risk is worth it. Yes, sometimes it’s their egos and competitive instincts driving their passion to trounce your baby, but that goes with the territory. (If their egos are bugging you, it’s a good idea to check your own.)
  2. “Great” can always be improved. No matter how smart you and your team may be, there’s no idea out there that can’t be better, and the faster you get your ego out of the way, the more quickly it will improve. As others work to find its weaknesses, you receive valuable input to strengthen your brilliant idea and get it ready for the big leagues, where it awaits more powerful forces (e.g., customers and analysts). Testing is crucial because on the battlefield, you probably won’t get a second chance.
  3. You’re the best idea out there. We tend to get attached to the ideas and innovations outside ourselves — the proposal, the product or the process, but those are a dime a dozen. How many brilliant ideas have you had that end up coming to market about the time you dream them up? (Me? Hundreds.) Learn the process so you gain enough credibility to get your good ideas evaluated quickly and to gain personal influence. That’s how you can achieve more meaning, impact and joy in your work than one brilliant idea will ever accomplish by itself. (If one brilliant idea were enough, Google would be able make up its mind about who invented the paperclip — today’s search identified at least four folks above the fold.)

Many payoffs

My client recently made a breakthrough. She took a brief respite from fighting the political dragons and attended an industry forum. Because she’d gotten so good at pitching, re-pitching and running the gauntlet in her company, she was able to handle the issues and quagmires on the sectoral stage with ease. As a result, she quickly gained credibility at the forum and was invited to chair a committee evaluating critical legislation that could affect her company’s standing with its most important customer base. Returning to her company with this plum assignment impressed her superiors, and she received resources to handle the sector assignment without jeopardizing her internal projects.

If everyone had given her an easy pass in the company, she admitted with hindsight, she wouldn’t have had the skills to manage so adeptly on the larger forum. Reluctantly, she admitted that the death of a few “great” ideas along the way was worth it to help her hone her pitching skills and achieve a level of personal influence that afforded her greater success and more opportunity to “cause trouble on a grand scale.”

By contrast, a friend of mine was so inept at pitching his idea to his best friend (who ran the company that could make millions on it) that all the friendship in the world couldn’t help him land the deal.

Do you have an amazing, great, fantastic, sure-to-be-the-next-paperclip idea of your career? Let me help you avoid my friend’s fate. Download a free idea-pitching template to help you out.