How to Accept the Death of Your Good Ideas

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Berlin, Germany– The first time I put on one of these forums in 2014, it was a great success. It was an open conversation between one of our most successful US-based marketers with a dozen of our marketing directors from all around the world. Everyone came eager to learn. And they did. I took copious notes myself

But 15 minutes into this morning’s presentation, I knew that it was time for a change. Because of the success of the past three forums, attendance had more than tripled to 40 people. As a result, the room had to be arranged seating style (rather than as a single roundtable), and the presentation was no longer an intimate conversation but a lecture.

After the first break, I asked a few of the attendees what they thought. “It’s really good,” everyone said. But I knew they didn’t mean it.

“But did you think it was a little boring?” I said.

“Yes, it was a bit,” they agreed. And this time I could see that they meant it.

There are two basic ways of responding to change:

  • The hard way (resistance/anger/defensiveness)
  • And the soft way (acceptance/amusement/relaxation).

If one has an ego-investment in the status quo, the tendency toward resistance will greater. And since this forum was my idea, I could hear the hard side of my brain telling me to ignore the Elephant of Boredom standing in the room. “These people are not bored,” it was saying. “They just look bored. You’re paranoid.”

But as 15 minutes turned into an hour and then three hours, even this part of my brain could not deny the factual details: the postures, the droopy eyelids, the clicking and clattering of cell phones and tablets and laptops.

“Okay,” my hard brain admitted. “They are bored. But it’s not because of the format. It’s because of the attendees.”

“Pearls before swine!” my hard brain shouted.

Change is difficult for business. And for a good reason: It opens the door to chaos. It lets in not only light and air but also the possibility of stormy weather. It can result in the disintegration or even the destruction of programs and protocols that have worked perfectly well for years.

In other words, change is not, as some believe, an intrinsically good thing. Like atomic energy, it can be good or it can be terrible. And that’s why people – including very smart people – tend to resist it.

But here’s a fact every experienced entrepreneur knows: When businesses grow, things change. And when things change, businesses must adapt.

So although my hard brain wanted to blame the attendees for the boredom that I was witnessing, my soft brain was whispering: “Don’t kid yourself. They are bored. And the problem is this format of yours. It worked well for three years, but it’s no longer working. If you want this meeting to go well, you have to change it.”

So we changed the format – both the physical arrangement of the seating and the structure of the presentations – and the vitality of the second half of the week was much improved. More voices were heard. Eyes were focused on whoever was speaking. The fidgeting with phones diminished. And the questions at the end of each two-hour session were good and earnest.

If it’s not already evident, making these changes quickly had two positive effects. It made the presentations stronger and better received. But it also made me feel good about myself, since I had accepted the need for change instead of resisting it.

I learned how to do this 20 some years ago when I first went to work with Agora Publishing. About six months into it, I recommended a marketing idea that bombed. I felt terrible about it. So terrible that I insisted on paying the company the $70,000 it lost on MY idea. Some months after that, we lost as much or more on an idea Bill had. Looking at the results for the first time, we were both shocked at how badly it had done. I expected him to carry the same guilt I had with my idea. Instead, he smiled and shrugged and said something I’ll never forget. He said, “Gee, I guess that wasn’t such a good idea after all!”

That was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in business. It helped me understand, almost instantly, the freedom that comes with separating your ego from your work. In the years since, I’ve coached into action countless ideas that didn’t pan out. And each time that happened, I repeated Bill’s words: “I guess that wasn’t such a good idea.”

The challenge when facing the need for change, especially when what needs to change is your idea, is to tune into that soft side of your brain. And the only way to do that is to reduce your ego attachment to the idea.

I’ve never been able to detach completely from my own ideas, but I’ve made progress. And that’s been helpful.

The next time you introduce a successful idea into your business, give yourself a day or two to feel good about it. Then mentally kiss it goodbye. Let the idea become the property of the business by desisting from referring to it as “my” idea. Talk about it as if it is the idea of everyone involved. And give credit to everyone that helps realize it.

Of course, that means you get less glory when the idea is working. But the benefit is that the hard part of your brain will be less resistant to recognizing and accepting the problem and coming up with a new solution.

Change is difficult, but it’s necessary. When your business is growing at a moderate rate, a need for change will likely be years apart. But when growth is fast, as it often is with entrepreneurial companies, you might have to recognize (and suggest) the need for change as frequently as every six months.

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