Recognize When Your Big Idea Is a Bust and Move On

The world is full of leaders and, of course, followers. If you’re a leader — an executive, an entrepreneur, or a small business owner — you know your employees count on you to come up with big ideas and guide the company to success.

It’s a lot of pressure. But quite frankly, you wouldn’t be in this position if you didn’t absolutely love it.

There’s only one problem: Some leaders are a little too in love with their position, and that can prove problematic. When you can’t soak up insights from others, let go of bust campaigns, or abandon ideas that are no longer propelling you forward, you’re doing a disservice to your company.

The answer? Learn to recognize and trash your (not so great) big ideas before it’s too late.

It’s Human Nature to Hold On

By the time you’ve really thought an idea through, shared it with others, and even presented it to stakeholders, you’ve got a lot invested in it. And I’m not just talking about time and money. Your ego may feel slightly threatened — not to mention your credibility.

If you can’t see this idea through, what does that say about you?

Unfortunately, egos are an honest-to-goodness expense you simply can’t afford in business. Fifty-one percent of executives estimate that ego trips cost their companies anywhere from 6 to 15% of revenue, and an additional twenty-one percent estimate that they cost as much as 20% of revenue. Do the math: egos can cost up to $2 million for every $10 million your company produces.

Unfortunately, egos are an honest-to-goodness expense you simply can’t afford in business.

That ego costs you any money at all is a pretty stunning statistic. But these numbers are a major wake-up call. Your trouble letting go may stem from an inability to delegate, an invincibility complex or a belief in your own infallibility, or even imposter syndrome (i.e., the inability to acknowledge or associate with your own accomplishments for fear of being seen as a fraud).

I have a vivid memory of one leader I associated with who thought he knew the best business model and revamped much of what had made his company successful in the first place. However, he made one fatal mistake: He failed to ask the customers what they wanted.

This gentleman was brilliant, but his pride wouldn’t allow him to admit he needed to change directions. Instead, the company’s sales started to sink, and customers’ needs weren’t met. Not only did he hurt the company, but his employees also started to question his leadership capabilities.

They didn’t lose confidence in him because he had a bad idea — it was his failure to admit that he had been wrong that did him in.

How to Loosen Your Iron Grip

When it comes right down to it, not every idea is a winner. In fact, I’d argue that most ideas aren’t really that great. It’s why so many startups don’t make it off the ground. Of the startups granted seed money by Y Combinator, less than 10 percent actually succeed. This is pretty dismal when you consider that approximately 3-5 percent of applicants are even accepted into the program.

None of this is to say that great leaders aren’t allowed to make mistakes. Often, leaders are risk takers; individuals with the vision and insight to make new things happen. Because of this, they’re also more likely to fail hard, and that’s OK.

Learning to recognize what precedes a failure is instructive, as is striving to stay authentic.

If the failure is informative enough, it’s not really a failure at all. If you’re stinging from a loss, try looking at it the way your parents and teachers always encouraged you to — as a learning experience. It sounds cheesy, but this is truly one of the best ways to avoid getting sucked into the trap of a new idea down the road. The successful companies are willing to sit down and look at each major program, project, or accomplishment through a critical lens.

They ask themselves, “What did we do right, and what could we do better?”

Another way to ensure your ideas are worthy of moving forward is to vet them and ensure they pass all the “good idea” tests. This is the only way to increase your successes and reduce your busts over time — and it substantially improves buy-in among the people who can help make your ideas succeed.

You shouldn’t be expected to stay grounded by yourself. Instead, find and connect with those who influence you positively — a spouse, a mentor, a group of peers, or a support group. Ideally, these people won’t be impressed by wealth, power, or success; they’ll look for and support the authenticity that makes you great.

Building a business around values will help employees and other stakeholders keep you on the straight and narrow. Cultivate a culture that values support so that when you’re vulnerable, your team can redirect you. One of the greatest lessons I ever learned was how much respect and power you can earn when you say to your teammates, “This just isn’t working. I need your help to think this through.”

Good leaders aren’t afraid to be losers. They’re not afraid to stand in a room and admit they messed up. Getting to this vulnerable place isn’t second nature for anyone, but one day, you may look at a great idea and, with no pain at all, realize it just really isn’t that great.


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Sarah Clark is the president of Mitchell Communications Group, an award-winning public relations firm that creates real conversations between people, businesses, and brands through strategic insights, customized conversations, and consumer engagement. The agency is headquartered in Fayetteville, Ark., with offices in Chicago and New York City. Mitchell is part of the Dentsu Aegis Network and has more than 300 offices in 110 countries. Clark is one of the top strategic communications professionals in the country, with more than 25 years of experience in corporate communications and an exceptional track record in protecting corporate reputations and redefining perceptions in key areas of business.

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