In fundraising, as in any creative work, ideas are among the most precious things we have.
Big ideas. Small ideas. New ideas. Even old ideas brought back to life.
People who are good at dreaming up ideas — especially good ideas — are heroes in our business.
The problem is this: Most people, most of the time, are terrible at ideas. In fact, many of us might qualify as champion idea-slayers.
But almost anyone can be a power-generator of great ideas. You just have to be realistic about what it takes.
I’m going to show you the two things it takes to be a great idea person. But first, I’m going to show you why we are so often idea-slayers:
We kill good ideas because we are so afraid of bad ideas.
I once attended a meeting with a client where we were discussing some kind of strategic challenge — I can’t remember what, and in a minute you’ll see why it’s probably a merciful thing that my memory is fuzzy on this.
The person in charge said, “Let’s come up with some new ideas, and we’ll decide which ones we should move forward with.”
Some brave soul described an idea. I remember thinking it was interesting, and possibly a very good idea.
The room immediately sprang to action.
“We tried something a bit like that nine years ago and it failed.”
“We probably don’t have the database back-end to handle it.”
“We’d have to hire at least one FTE. We can’t afford that.”
There were more like that. Potential problems with this new idea. After about ten minutes, the person who’d said it felt like crap. The rest of us felt we’d dodged a bullet by stopping such a terrible idea before it got too far.
That idea was dead. A stinky corpse.
The meeting went on like this for a while. Someone would name the germ of an idea, then the rest of us would pounce on it and convincingly show how bad that idea was.
After an hour, we’d massacred around ten ideas.
We had no solution to the problem we were trying to solve. Not even the germ of a solution. But we did have a shared conviction about how terrible a number of possible approaches were. In other words, we were further from a solution than we’d been when we started.
That’s how you kill good ideas.
You kill bad ideas.
That’s the fundamental truth about ideas. When they’re new, the good ones and the bad ones look exactly alike. It’s sort of like a garden. In the early spring, not long after you plant the seeds, you start to see little green nubs poking out of the soil. You can’t tell yet what they are. Some of them might be carrots or broccoli. Some might be dandelions. You have to let them develop and grow a bit before you can tell the difference.
If you live in terror of the destructive power of weeds in your garden, you might pre-emptively pull up all the potential dandelions, now while they’re easy to pull.
But you’re going to pull up all the good stuff too. And you’ll never find out which was which. And you’ll end up with no ideas.
That’s the thing about ideas. The good ones don’t come from nowhere. They come out of an environment: good ideas, mediocre ideas, bad ideas. Ideas that would have been good in the past. Ideas that might be good a few years from now. Ideas that aren’t very good, but could turn great with a few tweaks.
And they all look alike at first.
So here’s how you become an idea champion:
- Tolerate bad ideas.
- Seek quantity, not quality.
I don’t mean you must implement every half-baked thought that gets blurted out in a meeting. But you must let those half-baked thoughts grow a bit by taking them seriously — at least until you can tell whether it’s growing into a carrot or a dandelion. And sometimes you can’t tell until you’ve actually implemented. And seen the badness of the idea blossom.
The unattractive truth is, most new ideas are bad. But the only way to get good ideas is to have a lot of ideas. Most of them bad.
If you’re having a lot of bad ideas, that’s a sign of a healthy situation. Because among the bad ideas are a few good ones. The ideas that solve your problems, that help you adapt to a changing world, that keep your best people engaged.
And raise a lot more money for your cause.
It costs very little to have a bunch of bad ideas on the way to a good one. But there’s a massive hidden tax on the organization that blocks all ideas because it blocks bad ideas. Those organizations fail to solve problems, lose their smartest employees, and eventually find themselves unable to adapt to changing conditions.
If you want good ideas, accept bad ideas. Embrace quantity. Don’t kill ideas while they’re new.
Have you experienced this in your organization? We’d love to learn from you, please share your thoughts below.
A marketing research client of mine does this well. They give everyone nerf guns during brainstorming sessions. When someone shoots down an idea, everyone else shoots at them. (Perhaps not politically correct these days but…). It works well and as a result ‘Red Box’ and other consumer products and services have been born.
I love that. Maybe an alternative would be when someone shoots down an idea, everyone gets up and marches around the room in an impromptu #neveragain demonstration.
Replace the Nerf guns with rubber bands…same message to the “idea slayer” but doesn’t have the potential negative association with gun violence.