Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Why Do Ideas Have Such a Hard Time Surviving at Work?

November 30th, 2009 | Bob Rosner

Image: Bob RosnerAn old UK study found that 81% of people had their best ideas outside of the office (but you’ll have to guess what percentage found them in the bathroom!).

Visit any business web site, read current business magazines or listen to business gurus and it’s all about the “ideas”. In fact, it sometimes feels like “new ideas” are the answer, no matter what the question.

This blog will spend time NOT exploring how to think outside the box. Rather, it will look into how we all got jammed into the box in the first place and why it’s bad for our organizations and really bad for us. And deadly for new ideas.

Okay, let’s give you some additional information on that UK study about where our best ideas are generated. Sony Ericsson conducted the study and found 81% had their best ideas outside of the office. Top places for idea generation? The car, in bed and socializing. At the bottom of the list was in the pub. And finally, as promised above, 6% of us have our best ideas in the toilet.

So why do we have to escape our desk to find our best ideas? I’ve got three reasons why. First is the ubiquitous cubicle. Sure a great idea can come to you while sitting in a cube, but is it because of the cube or in spite of the cube? The cubicle company’s literature emphasizes that cubes foster conversation, bring teams closer together and can be darn good looking. But the reality is that we need less noise and distraction, especially if we are going to wander in that fragile area called idea generation.

Another part of the problem is the tendency of organizations to promote the people who have never had an idea on their own into management positions. Sure it makes sense; people are put into management because they support the status quo. This reminds me of a line I once heard about Al Gore. “Al Gore is an older person’s idea of what a younger person should be.” And people who don’t have ideas have a really weird view of how people with ideas should be treated. Actually weird isn’t the best word to describe it. How about dangerous. Why? Because people who’ve never had a good idea like to pick at ideas, play devil’s advocate and attach timelines and budgets to them much too early.

Instead of giving the idea, and the idea generator, room to maneuver they often force the baby to survive outside of the nurturing cubicle where it was created much too early (okay, the words “nurturing cubicle” are totally oxymoronic and run counter to what I wrote about cubes above. But since this is called a blog, a certain amount of inconsistency comes with the turf.).

Finally the biggest idea killer is the “corporate immune” system. This idea was first described by my friend Gifford Pinchot, best selling author of the book “Intrapreneuring”. He talks about all the ways that organizations seek out and destroy anything that runs counter to the status quo. The challenge is that the corporate immune system is relentless in its ability to remove threats and ensure mediocrity.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on how organizations kill ideas. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to tell you where I have my best ideas, because right now, I gotta go.

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.

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