Ideas, Inc.: Creativity Fuels Success

The quickest way to run out of ideas for your small business is to pretend to be the only one who has ideas. The next quickest way to run out of ideas is to pretend that every idea has to be great.

I've noticed that successful entrepreneurs tend to start with their own good ideas for their businesses and then open up to new ones from their employees, their friends and family, and, best of all, their customers. They recognize fairly early on that they can't be the only go-to person for ideas, because they're going to run out of gas.

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A recent article in the New York Times (March 26, 2006) explains how one small business in Rhode Island keeps the ideas flowing. The owners of Rite-Solutions, a software company that does business with the Navy, recognized that they couldn't supply all the ideas all the time. So they set up an in-house stock market for new ideas. Employees can propose ideas for just about anything – new businesses, more efficient ways to work – and those ideas get ticker symbols and an initial trading price of $10. Employees also get $10,000 in funny money to buy or sell the stock of the ideas they are most interested in.

The article explains that since Rite-Solutions started this stock market for ideas in January 2005, it has pursued two new products based on ideas from employees whose stock had attracted the most money and most attention. One of these products succeeded so well that it now provides 30 percent of total sales. The company's 57-year-old president and co-founder, Joseph M. Marino, says, "There's nothing wrong with experience. The problem is when experience gets in the way of innovation. As founders, the one thing we know is that we don't know all the answers."

The So-So Idea
But even with a slew of ideas, old habits die hard. Have you noticed how easy it is to dismiss ideas, particularly if they aren't yours? For instance, kids have great ideas every day that we adults often put down as impractical. Often, small business owners play the same parental role with employees, dismissing ideas as not being useful or practical or economical enough. They're just so used to coming up with ideas – after all, who had the original idea for the business in the first place? – that they can't admit that others have ideas that might work, too.

And the beauty of letting others weigh in is that ideas don't always have to start as great ideas – even so-so or crazy ideas can become better with time or with changes. Cathy Perry, an executive coach with Inward Bound in Atlanta, runs brainstorming sessions in which she reminds everyone to just let the ideas fly. "Start with a bunch of wild, crazy and completely impractical ideas," she says. "They will lead to a few only half-crazy ideas, which then takes you to the fabulous idea you're ready to implement – which you never would have gotten to if you hadn't started with the impractical, crazy ones in the first place."

On the flip side of the coin, it doesn't pay to paralyze yourself or your people by pretending that only great ideas are worth pursuing. I remember a marketing V.P. I once worked for who tried to rally his troops with these words: "You really hit a homerun on that last project. I want you to hit another one out of the park on this next project." The pressure was too much – it shut down his staff's creativity and kept all kinds of ideas from bubbling up, because each of us knew that every idea couldn't be a homerun. They come in singles, doubles, triples, long fly balls and pop-ups. Homeruns are few and far between. But a good team of employees can take a double and a long fly ball and get the runner across home plate without having to hit a homerun.

The Decider
A company can't pursue all the ideas its people come up with – that's where the head of the company comes in. He or she gets to be the "decider," just as President Bush said last week: "I'm the decider, and I decide what's best." (Among other things, he's decided that Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld stays put.)

Small business owners get to pick and choose among ideas that come to them from employees, friends and family – and most of all, their customers, because some of the best ideas come from answering a customer's needs and wants. Do you think the iPod would be around if someone hadn't said one day, "You know, I wish I could download my own music to listen to on my Sony Walkman?"

It's fulfilling to be known as an "idea person." Human beings accord lots of status to those who can dream up an idea that makes the world easier to live in. But the best entrepreneurs and small business owners realize that, sooner or later, they may not have all the best ideas anymore. That's when they move on from being the one and only "idea person" to the "decider." That may be why Peter F. Drucker, the management guru, wrote these words: "Wherever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision."

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Susan C. Walker writes a personal finance and economics column for as well as this small business column. She works for Elliott Wave International, a market forecasting and technical analysis company, and has been an associate editor with Inc. magazine, a newspaper business editor, an investor relations executive for a real estate investment trust and a speechwriter for the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. She graduated from Stanford University.