Let the best ideas win

Good ideas survive deep skepticism and intense competition. Stress-testing ideas exposes their weaknesses and highlights their strengths. Innovation happens when people are encouraged to put forward their best thinking, no matter their status, power, or tenure.

I heard Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO and chairman, speak at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. He attributed a lot of Google’s success to the company’s practice of letting the best ideas win. Google embodies this ethos and approach to innovation in X Development, its semisecret innovation lab that works on moonshot technology, such as Google’s self-driving cars. The lab celebrates failure and gives bonuses to teams that successfully kill their own projects by disproving their hypotheses.

Easy to understand, difficult to implement

Most of us enjoy seeing our ideas adopted and don’t like watching them be criticized. When you combine this self-protective tendency with the hierarchies that develop in organizations, you can unintentionally protect bad ideas. You have likely witnessed a situation where no one wants to criticize an idea because it’s a pet project of someone who holds power in the organization.

Surrounding yourself with people who think like you blinds you to flaws in your thinking. The search for truth, knowledge, and innovation requires a free and open exchange of ideas. Seek out people with diverse viewpoints and invite criticism. Allow the best ideas to grow and let the bad ones die. Natural selection has been implementing this principle since life on earth began.

Learn to embrace failure and argue constructively

Innovation requires failure. British inventor Sir James Dyson spent 15 years creating 5,126 versions of his dual cyclone vacuum cleaner before he found the right design. Criticize ideas—not people. The competition of ideas only works if people share their best thinking, and people won’t speak up if there is a chance they will be attacked or disrespected. Not all ideas are going to be good. However, people need to feel safe and supported so they will share their ideas. Find believable people who disagree with you. Understand all ideas should be considered but consider the presenter’s track record and experience. If you don’t have direct experience with a topic, then don’t offer strong opinions. Consider a person’s believability when evaluating the worth of their opinions.

Here are a few practical ways to let the best ideas win.

  • Criticize ideas, not people. Argue constructively.
  • Don’t allow status to interfere with ideas.
  • Seek out people with diverse viewpoints.
  • Invite criticism.
  • Stress test your ideas.
  • Embrace failure in order to learn.

There’s usually an exception to every rule. Ignore this rule if there is not enough time to implement an idea before the company dies.

Good ideas survive intense scrutiny. Encourage everyone on your team to put their best ideas forward. And let the best ideas win.


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