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Effective leaders accelerate their team’s ideas-to-actions flow

Companies succeed when ideas are turned into actions, and great leaders help create ideas-to-actions machines. Learn more.

8 min read


IDeas-to-actions illustration

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“Ideas are easy; doing stuff is hard.” ~ Seth Godin

In my SmartBrief article “How leaders can teach their teams to become more creative,” I proposed a tune-up of the approaches used in many workplaces to generate ideas. After all, ideas are oxygen for problem-solving. Yet, great ideas aren’t enough. As leaders, we need to complete the process and make sure there’s a robust ideas-to-actions machine operating on our teams and in our organizations.

Here are some approaches to help strengthen the flow of ideas into actions in your workplace.

First, identify the blockers slowing ideas-to-actions flow

For a moment, assume we’ve solved the novel idea-deficit problem that exists in too many organizations. It’s time to focus on what keeps ideas from jumping off the page and into real life.

Lack of a filtering mechanism

A clear strategy and supporting goals are the ultimate filtering mechanisms — allowing individuals and groups to assess what to do and what not to do. When the strategy is vague or goals lofty and not actionable, every idea seems equally good or bad, generating an idea-to-actions paralysis.

Assess: How clear are your strategy and priority goals? Can your team members use these as filtering tools to decide what gets done and what gets ignored?

Project overload

Either due to vague strategy or senior leaders badly out of tune with the realities of workloads in organizations, it’s common to find environments where the priority projects exceed the available resources. This project overload mentally and physically exhausts team members and makes sure other potentially impactful ideas are parked permanently out of sight.

Assess: Is your team exhausted by priority project overload? Is the team not taking on new ideas for fear of making their situation worse?

Misguided measuring systems

The adage “What gets measured gets done” remains relevant and is often strengthened by off-kilter compensation systems that promote unexpected behaviors.

One team was preoccupied with over 60 key performance indicators. They spent so much organizational energy just trying to capture and report on these measures that management ignored fundamental marketplace shifts despite employees’ suggestions and customers’ pleading.

Assess: Are your measures generating data fog? Are they obscuring your team’s view of new ideas and innovations that are critical to strategic success and customer satisfaction?

5 ideas to help power your ideas-to-actions machine

After assessing and addressing the above blockers, it’s time to focus on changing the working environment to support a better ideas-to-actions flow. Not surprisingly, much of the heavy lifting is owned by an organization’s managers and leaders.

1. Accept your responsibility for ideas-to-actions

Leadership must be the catalyst, acknowledging their principal role is to create contextual clarity (strategy/goals) and empower smart people working together in a fear-free environment to drive the right ideas off the whiteboard and into action.

This isn’t a program-of-the-month initiative; it’s a fundamental shift in leading, empowering, sponsoring, rewarding and coaching. And it happens at all levels, from front-line managers to the C-suite.

2. Drive out fear

The late, great management thinker and quality guru W. Edwards Deming is more relevant every passing day with his 14 Points for Management. Point No. 8, “Drive out fear,” is the best three words of advice you’ll receive in your management career. In Deming’s words:

“The problems fear creates result in bad data, ineffective decision-making, and the destruction of joy in work.”

This latter issue, the “destruction of joy in work,” saps the desire of many to strive to make a difference with new initiatives.

Spend time connecting with your team members. Redouble your efforts to create mutually valuable one-on-ones. Flex to meet their communication needs. Listen fiercely, and use questions to draw out their ideas.

While this management guidance is good for every situation, one of the side effects of driving out fear and creating this context-clear, quality working environment is the increase in people’s willingness to try new things. Trying new things is the raw material of a healthy ideas-to-actions environment.

3. Bring your firm’s “experimentation” value to life

Raise your hand if you’ve heard a manager or leader say, “We value experimentation here,” only to later penalize people who led failed experiments.

I consulted for a firm where leaders trumpeted values of innovation and risk-taking, yet when I asked about examples that resulted in successes, no one could not point to any. The firm’s struggles were partially explained by the lack of healthy behaviors promoting ideas-to-actions.

It’s imperative to reinforce a culture that rewards learning through experimentation. Succeeding with this cultural shift involves measuring success differently —evaluating employees for their willingness to try new approaches and translate insights gained through failed experiments into new actions.

4. Cure the “new ideas lead to more work” mindset

A culture rich in ideas is indeed a culture where new work is constantly identified, yet there’s a difference between more work and new work. Good ideas lead to new work.

Everyone, especially managers and organizational leaders, must remain vigilant in killing pet projects and initiatives that don’t have a powerful reason for being. It takes courage to say “No” or hit the “Stop” button on something in motion. It also takes reinforcement of the experimentation value described above. If there’s a penalty for killing initiatives, the ideas-to-actions flow will stop.

5. Use a multiple-horizon approach for your ideas-to-actions portfolio

Not every project has an immediate payback, nor should it. It’s imperative to split initiatives into different time horizons and support them accordingly. An activity that promises short-term gains through process improvement is managed differently than one that is a deep exploration of new technologies or markets.

The former demands fast execution, and the latter nurturing and incubation. The right environment will encourage exploration across multiple time horizons.

4 healthy ideas-to-actions behaviors on display

From the school of “you know it’s working when you see it in action,” here are some healthy behaviors to look for in your ideas-to-actions environment.

1. Successes and failures are treated with equal enthusiasm

Everyone recognizes that the path to success winds through failures and misfires. The premium is on the process of learning on the road to successful outcomes.

2. Managers serve as accountable sponsors for initiatives

I love when managers are on the line for an initiative’s success. Serving as an accountable sponsor challenges the manager to knock down barriers and pave the way for a team’s success. Additionally, for projects that cross boundaries, managers are challenged to build or strengthen relationships in other areas and help ensure the satisfaction of all stakeholders.

3. Advanced problem-solving techniques are on display

Much of the problem-solving that takes place in organizations reflects convergent thinking. Individuals and groups converge on an issue using approaches that are familiar, yet when faced with novel situations, convergent thinking doesn’t work.

In one organization I worked with, individuals spent a good deal of time framing and reframing problems and then challenging each other to generate wild ideas based on the different frames.

In another, the focus was on studying organizations and their customers in faraway markets to learn how others had solved analogous problems.

For your ideas-to-actions machine to yield great results, novel thinking is essential in the process of problem-solving. Coach your teams in this area for maximum effectiveness.

4. Ideas-to-actions flow is measured and monitored

As described above, our measurements breed positive and negative behaviors, so be careful here. Monitoring the flow of ideas to actions and then to impact is essential. Just be careful to not put undue weight on short-term gains and incremental fixes at the expense of inventing the future. Measure learning, and also measure failures that lead to learning and success.

The bottom line

Ultimately, healthy working environments create mechanisms for ideas to be evaluated and turned into actions. The work of managing and leading in today’s world is all about empowering motivated people to create something new, whether it’s a product, service or process.

An organization’s leaders need to work unceasingly on a culture that eliminates fear and promotes creativity that leads to impact. Is it time to tune your ideas-to-actions machine?

Art Petty is an executive and emerging-leader coach and a popular leadership and management author, speaker and workshop presenter. His experience guiding multiple software firms to positions of market leadership comes through in his books, articles, and live and online programs. Visit Petty’s Management Excellence blog and Leadership Caffeine articles.

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