“Hey boss, I’ve got a great idea.” This phrase should be music to a leader’s ears, but often the value of the moment is fumbled away and can be handled better than with a simple no or “go for it.” These moments are opportunities for exploration and to make sure people feel heard. Below are a few ideas to make sure those conversations are productive, the opportunities appropriately exploited, and people come away feeling good about the experience.

Firstly, seek to “screen ideas in.” Don’t get stuck feeling that there are only a few choices here. Leaders can say more than “yes go for it” or “write up a plan and get back to me” or “no.” These common approaches can lead to ideas that are not well-conceived being pursued, plans getting shot down later after considerable work, or people feeling snubbed after making a suggestion. Instead, leaders should try to screen ideas in. Let’s face it, many good ideas are good, but they are still far from ready for execution. They need a little thought to help bring them to life. A great manager should be able to help the person offering their idea think it through and make it even better. Two heads should be better than one, right?

Next, help them think through all the benefits and costs. Benefits and costs may be quantitative and qualitative. Benefits can include cost savings, new market opportunities, saved time, improved safety, and even an enhanced reputation in the community. Costs include the cost to make the change and include things like capital investment, training, or time/effort spend to make the change come about.

Finally, help them to think through two dimensions that often get overlooked*: the degree of strategic fit and the degree of disruption. To what extent and in what ways is this idea supporting strategic direction of the company? For a construction company, novel ways to improve safety will likely have high strategic fit. Ways to improve the speed of mundane processes like payroll may be judged to have lower strategic fit. Disruption is the degree to which the change will disrupt the organization. ERP systems commonly have high disruption because they change how many people work and do their jobs.

The making the suggestion may have their ideas on all four of these dimensions, but through conversation, a leader can help flesh these out and expand them.

A few suggestions:

  • Make the process a conversation, not an interrogation. The person may not have considered some of the perspectives you are bringing up so don’t make them feel silly for not having thought of something that occurred to you.
  • Be curious. The person obviously sees something of value, try to understand what it is that they see.
  • Put yourself in their shoes. Going to a manager with an idea to improve something can be perceived as a risky proposition for people. Keep in mind that they have this idea that they care enough about to bring up. Nobody likes to hear that their “baby” is ugly. Be discerning, but do so in a way that is understanding of the situation.
  • Seek to make the idea better, together. Looking at each of the four dimensions, are there ways to increase the benefits and strategic fit? Are there ways to minimize costs and disruption? The initial evaluation might be changed with additional creative thinking and collaboration.
  • Set a clear next step. After the conversation (and going through the four screens) there will likely be some obvious next steps. For example, if the idea (after seeking to screen it in) still does not seem to be attractive, then the next step may be to get more input on how to make it better. Perhaps it is ready for some formal risk analysis. Perhaps it needs some additional input from a subject matter expert. Perhaps it is ready for some input from others who would be involved in the implementation or impacted by the change.

Leaders have been trained on how to handle performance conversations. Sales people certainly know how to conduct conversations that lead to sales. Shouldn’t leaders be just as good at being able to have conversations that lead to more and better ideas? Try these steps out and see what you can create. The outcome will probably be better than a simple yes or no.


[Want more ideas on how to foster more innovation in your organization? Download the e-book Ridiculously Innovative: Generate More Ideas Faster to Grow Your Business.]

*this four-dimension framework is from Robert & Weiss’ book The Innovation Formula.