How to kill employees' bad ideas -- but not their desire to innovate

With time and effort, you can turn a good worker's impractical idea into a lesson in business reality


I agree with most everything you wrote, excellent column, but I wonder a bit about the details. While we want to encourage innovation, we also need ways to say no.

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An example happened to me just yesterday. An employee wanted to quit printing a pile of paper and mailing it out. She was doing this a few times a week and could replace it with a DVD of images.

Her idea made perfect sense. The problem is the idea only impacted her, and the cost to implement the idea was far more expensive than just continuing the manual process. (Plus, we already have a large queue of other requests waiting.)

Saying no may shut this person down from offering other ideas. Many people view things from their own job/world. To me that is one of the big challenges of keeping innovation alive.

- KJR Commenter

Dear KJR Commenter ...

My take: The best approach is to say neither yes or no. Make sure she knows what a business case looks like, and ask her to develop one. Nothing elaborate -- you aren't trying to punish her with this -- but enough of a plan that she has to figure out what direct costs her approach will incur, what indirect costs will also show up, and how much effort will be needed to turn it into a reality (end-user training and ongoing support, for example). And she has to figure out what the benefits will be.

If you ask the right kind of questions, they'll help her explain the right answer to herself. The result will be that she'll gain business acumen and you won't have to worry about stifling good ideas.

Assuming that when she walks you through the business case she's figured out the idea won't deliver the benefits she'd originally thought, make sure you point out that this is how good ideas happen: by employees like her coming up with notions that seem attractive, then digging to figure them out. In other words, make sure she understands that because she was able to figure out that her idea doesn't stand up to close scrutiny, you consider the whole exercise to be a great success -- and so should she because she's reached a new level in knowing how to assess an idea.

This is, by the way, one of those suggestions that's a lot easier where I'm sitting than where you're sitting; it will require your investing some time you probably don't have and her doing the same though the conclusion is pretty much predetermined.

- Bob

Note: This question was originally posted as a comment to this week's Keep the Joint Running. For context, the column states that while the most obvious innovations are in a company's products, many of the most important are in all the internal functions that have to work well for those products to get out the door. The rest of the column lays out what managers have to do to encourage employees to bring up innovative ideas.

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