|By Gerard Fonte
Engineer and Author
Engineers and engineering managers are always at the leading edge of technology. New ideas are potentially very valuable. But, how do you know if a new idea is a good idea? What do you do when someone comes to you with a new idea? And, of course, how do you cultivate good ideas?
Why it's hard
Recognizing a good idea is often a very difficult thing to do. New ideas are, by necessity, unconventional. People like the status quo, so anything that changes, makes them uneasy. It's human nature to push a new idea aside, yet that's just as wrong as vigorously pursuing every new idea that comes your way. Thus, the first thing to do when someone comes to you with a new idea is to listen and evaluate objectively.
Of course, this is work and it takes time. If Bob comes into your office and says "I've got this great idea," don't say, "You've got five minutes." Instead, schedule 30 to 60 minutes so you can actually listen to what he has to say. If Bob says, "It'll only take 5 minutes." It's probably not a good idea, or at least not a well thought-out one. While the kernel of an idea may take only 5 minutes to explain, the kernel's application and potential benefits and risks will take more than five minutes. If Bob can't address these points, he hasn't done his homework.
Finally, new ideas require new words and thoughts that may be difficult to verbalize and understand. Overcoming barriers to effectively communicate technical or financial jargon, may take considerable effort from both parties.
What Makes an Idea Good
Fundamentally, a good idea solves a problem. Sometimes the problem is obvious, and sometimes people don't even know there is a problem. For example, what problem did wireless transmission (or "radio") solve? At the time, many people felt that the telegraph was just fine. Ideas that solve problems that are not obvious are the hardest to evaluate.
Good ideas have benefits that outweigh the costs, but quantifying the benefits and costs is not an easy thing to do. This is especially true for novel ideas. The costs of developing a "radio" were significant, and the benefits, at the time, were not very clear. Radio range was much less than the telegraph and the radio was much more complicated. Additionally, everyone could receive radio with the proper equipment. So, any message sent by radio was not very private. Not like the telegraph at all.
In the long run, good ideas should generally be cost-effective. However, when someone comes to with an idea, you don't have the luxury of waiting years or decades to recover the developmental costs. You will have to examine the idea from the short term point of view.
I have found that a formal presentation of a new idea gives the idea the best chance. First, publish a checklist of those topics that the new idea should address. What are the benefits of the idea? What are the risks? How is the idea to be implemented? Are there similar ideas in use now? What are the costs to develop? Examining the idea from an executive's perspective provides a better understanding of what is important to the company and prepares you for the questions that will be asked.
Second, prepare a presentation for the evaluation meeting. This forces you to develop the idea fully, to organize thoughts and formulate sound reasoning. It's often the case that someone thinks they understand something, but when they start writing it down, gaps in logic become visible.
Third, bring an associate or two. This enables you to feel more comfortable with someone who can assist with explanations and answers.
Evaluation and Response
After the idea is presented, a written evaluation within a reasonable timeframe is in order. If the idea is rejected, specific reasons should be given.
It should be understood by all parties that there is no such thing as a bad idea; some ideas are simply unprofitable. Reinforce the importance of cultivating ideas. After all, the company was founded on someone's good idea and growth is dependent on them.
If the idea is accepted, the employee should be recognized and rewarded to encourage others. A percentage of profits from the idea is a stronger incentive than a one-time reward.
The Suggestion Box
The suggestion box is arguably the worst idea for collecting good ideas ever employed. At its best, it's just a morale boost for the employees. The box gets suggestions like: "How about putting a candy machine in the break room?" Or, "Let's go to a four-day work week." Basically, it's just a feedback mechanism to management. If the feedback isn't acted upon, then the box is perceived as another failed management tool that illustrates how out of touch management really is.
Recognizing Good Ideas
Co-workers may bounce ideas off one another informally. When a co-worker has an idea, remember to take it seriously, as ideas are fragile, personal things. Listen carefully, and if something doesn't make sense, ask for clarification and offer constructive feedback.
A manager looks at broader, more non-technical aspects of the idea. Generally, the outlook is pragmatic. If the idea is profitable, it's accepted; otherwise it's rejected.
Often, the source of the idea can lend the idea credibility. If Bob, a good worker with lots of experience, says that he can improve production by building special test fixtures, the idea will be readily accepted. If, however, Bob is a summer intern, the idea will be more difficult to accept. It doesn't mean that the idea is bad, it just means the idea needs to be evaluated on its own merits.
A non-technical employee may have a brilliant idea for a product, but is challenged to address the technical aspects: Is the idea feasible, practical, profitable? A technical person should be brought on board to consider these questions. But this can turn into a difficult situation if the technical person, who essentially becomes a co-inventor of the idea, is not rewarded for his part.
Conclusion Ideas, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder. Different people will evaluate the same idea in different ways and come to different conclusions. Fostering good ideas requires a true effort by management. And, because businesses must grow and evolve to stay competitive in today's business environment, good ideas are the life-blood of the company.
Gerard Fonte has been an engineer for over 35 years and has had the opportunity to work on a wide variety of state-of-the-art commercial and military projects: gravity navigation, missile guidance, electronic warfare and things that "don't exist". He's held the positions of microprocessor specialist, senior engineer, and principal scientist and is currently semi-retired as the principal engineer for The PAK Engineers (a small product design and development company near Buffalo, NY). As an author, Gerard has written numerous popular and scientific articles on many diverse topics as well as the book, Building the Great Pyramid in a Year: An Engineer's Report. "Gerard's Columns" is found monthly in Elektor magazine. He and his wife, Nellie, live in a geodesic dome that they designed and built by themselves.