Why Your Brilliant Idea Just Got Watered Down to Nothing

What’s the reason so many great ideas turn out to be terrible ones once they’re out the door?

Over time and many years, I’ve learned there are only a few reasons:

“I did that”

You know these people: they’re great at self promotion and talking loudly, but very poor at doing much else. They take meetings and create relationships, but you can’t pin them down to much actual achievement.

They never get fired though, and here is the reason: they’re very good at introducing small, often insignificant, changes; changes which let them claim they’ve had a material impact on whatever it is.

For an innovator, the key discipline is working out which small changes make no difference (and hence let you keep such individuals on side) and which you must fight against to preserve the integrity of your initial concept.

The clever innovator knows how to pick the battles which matter.

“That’s Mine”

Watch out for empires – those non-collaborative silos that are more loyal to themselves than the organizations they’re supposed to serve.

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Empires are usually fiercely protected by whomever owns them, because, more often than not, they’re defined not by their own capabilities, but the empire itself.

Into such a mix, inject something brilliant which, if implemented, will force the empire to move, however insignificant such a move might be.

The reaction is predictable: the owner of the empire changes the idea in ways which allows them to ensure it is logically incorporated into the empire rather than isolated from it.

A lone guy with an idea is usually not in any position to fight an empire, so the clever innovator knows how to hide things from empires until it is too late to change them.

“That’s Bad”

Any new idea polarizes everyone into two camps: those who will benefit and those who will lose.

The losers will do everything they can to change the idea so they’ll lose less. They’ll likely do this by painting the idea as something that is bad.

What does that mean?

It means the thing that made the idea brilliant in the first place is going to get changed. There’s nothing malicious about this: everyone tries to protect their positions when threatened.

But for an innovator, there is really only one defence: you have to motivate those who will win to stand up on your behalf.

Rule of thumb: you need a vocal winner for every loser you can identify, and then a few more on top to account for the political foes you have that are clever enough not to show themselves up front.

“That’s Too New”

People have preferences for adopting new things. In most organizations, the preference for newness is pretty normally distributed, which means approximately half the organization will be open to new ideas, and half won’t.

The half which isn’t open, of course, will try to introduce compromises which will make your idea less new, more like what already exists. They’ll try to water down your idea in (what they say) are the best interests of everyone.

Clever innovators realize they can’t convince people who don’t like new things to like their idea, no matter how brilliant it is. What they can do, though, is make sure their ideas are introduced in such a way that the amount of change is gradual – gradual enough not to threaten those who hate change.

Have you had any experiences of your idea turning into nothing because of the compromises you’ve had to deal with?


4 Responses to“Why Your Brilliant Idea Just Got Watered Down to Nothing”

  1. March 6, 2012 at 3:39 pm #

    Hi James:

    I think the key message is that every idea will be watered down – that’s why it is so important to start out with great, disruptive ideas. If your starting point is relatively safe ideas, they too will get watered down, simplified and made “safe” to the point where innovation seems like all it does is generate obvious answers.

    The real struggle in many businesses is that their “business as usual” approach cannot tolerate, does not allow, unusual, interesting ideas that differ significantly from the concepts that are “expected”. Thus, either ideas are changed or the process is changed, and given the investment in the process, it is the ideas that are changed, and simplified, and made acceptable.

    Thanks for the good post!

    • jawgardner
      March 6, 2012 at 3:51 pm #

      Your experience is exactly the same as mine Jeffrey. Though I’d make one point in contrast to yours: there is only so much bandwidth available for the big disruptive stuff. There needs to be a nice balance between incremental and big, I think. It is the only way to ensure that you get the returns you need to sustain any kind of innovation effort.

      Thanks so much for your comment, it is spot on.

  2. March 6, 2012 at 7:56 pm #

    Sorry, I can’t help myself but to say this reminds me of the parable of the fox and the scorpion. If you’ll recall, the scorpion stings the fox half way across the river. The scorpion notes that it “is in his nature” to sting.

    Perhaps we should note that it is “in the nature” of existing processes and bandwidth to simplify and water down ideas…


  1. Top 10 Internet links of the week – 23rd March 2012 | - March 23, 2012

    […] Why Your Brilliant Idea Just Got Watered Down to Nothing – I came across this blog by James Gardner (@bankervision) this week and just love this article for the reasoning it provides to idea submitters on why their idea may change beyond recognition before implantation. […]

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