How to stop disruption from half-baked ideas
Extreme collabohaters: the half-baker
If asked whether your company would benefit from an endless source of new ideas, many of your colleagues would presumably rush to tap the well. After all, is it possible for a person to have too many ideas?
The person we call the half-baker is the one who seems to operate without a filter, derailing meetings with tangents, constantly posing hugely hypothetical questions, always throwing out big ideas and paradigm shifts without a whole lot of underlying substance, to say nothing of the half-baker’s limited understanding of the domino effect that would be set in motion by fully baking one of the ideas.
How can you better collaborate with these half-bakers and tangent-takers? It starts by making a high-level decision about how you want to run your meetings.
Choice 1: shut ’em down
In the never-ending quest for greater productivity, many businesses are reconsidering the way they run meetings. In a nutshell, they’re having fewer meetings, shorter meetings and more focused meetings.
One way to stop wasting time on half-baked ideas is to set meeting agendas and be strict about keeping to them. Yes, calling for an agenda or saying “that’s not on the agenda” may make you seem a tad… taskmaster-y. But your colleagues will thank you when the meeting wraps 15 minutes early instead of runs 15 minutes late. There is a time and a place for “What if…” brainstorming.
Once upon a time, several startups ago, I was stuffed into a conference room to talk about how we could gain a competitive advantage. During the course of that meeting, a very high-ranking exec grew tired of all the talk about the nuances of our actual competition. “We should be competing with Google,” he announced.
Choice 2: hear ’em out
If you do allow the half-baker to take the floor, be ready to bring them back to Planet Earth with questions like:
- How does this help us accomplish our business objectives?
- Where would we find the resources to explore this idea?
- What is your predicted outcome?
Often times, half-bakers will retreat under scrutiny. To be a good collaborator, obviously, these questions should be asked out of a spirit of pragmatism, not antagonism. You may even find yourself surprised at how well a seemingly crazy idea is supported, and sometimes someone else may step up to offer support and refinement. By subjecting floating ideas to a bit of tough love, though, you’re also establishing a precedent that thinking outside the box is encouraged, but wasting group time on ill-conceived pie-in-sky ideas is not.
“It’s a balancing act to address and defuse a bad idea while still allowing the team to feel safe offering up new thoughts freely,” says Die Empty author Todd Henry.
If you recognize yourself in the half-baker, it’s a useful exercise to identify the critical questions that test an idea’s worth. Refine your ideas before you present them, or make sure that you have a proper forum for riffing and improvising and pulling inspiration out of the sky. That forum is probably not the weekly project status update meeting.
What happens when the half-baker is a skilled debater?
Some half-bakers are such Big Thinkers™ that they won’t spare a thought for nagging details like feasibility. An even more difficult breed of half-baker, though, shares traits with another collabohater: the know-it-all. In this case, not only are you buried beneath an avalanche of ill-conceived ideas, but you have someone trying to convince you that avalanches will provide a whole new revenue stream for your business.
“If you learn a few tricks of logic and debate, you can refute the obvious, and defend the ridiculous,” writes Scott Berkun. “…Short of obtaining a degree in logic, or studying the nuances of debate, remember this one simple rule for defusing those who are skilled at defending bad ideas: Simply because they cannot be proven wrong, does not make them right.”
If your CMO pushes for you to host your annual customer conference at a base on Antarctica instead of, say, Las Vegas, you can’t prove that this will result in a drop in attendance. You shouldn’t have to. The burden of proof should be with the half-baker, not the half-baker’s audience.
If a half-baked idea has an enthusiastic, charismatic champion (particularly one with a fancy job title), it can be a lot harder to kill, or even impossible to kill. At an old job, we called them “zombie ideas” as they had a tendency to keep resurfacing and threatening our brains, even after we thought they’d been bludgeoned into submission.
Fostering a true collaborative culture can help guard against half-baked ideas cluttering up your meetings or, worse, cluttering up your actual vision statements, strategic priorities or product roadmaps. Instead of answering all of the big questions—who are we and what are we doing?—in a one-off meeting at the start of the year or quarter, encouraging a continuous, cross-departmental conversation about objectives and priorities will make it more difficult for someone to knock the train of common sense off its rails just by bulldozing a single meeting or email thread.