Build an Army for Your Ideas

How to call in reinforcements to champion your brainstorms.

Before you pitch your next big idea, remember the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. In the late 1970s, someone in the Army had a notion to build something that could transport 11-soldier squads into battle. Then the suggestions--and the chaos--started. Let's add a roof! And a missile launcher! More armor! The result was a $13 billion development boondoggle and a $1.6 million vehicle that could carry only seven people. The Bradley, as described in the film The Pentagon Wars, was "a troop transport that can't carry troops, a reconnaissance vehicle that's too conspicuous to do reconnaissance, and a quasi-tank that has less armor than a snowblower."

For all the talk about how important ideas are in business, ideas are really a plentiful commodity. What's scarce are the skills to get ideas through the myriad layers of bureaucracy that threaten to declaw, neuter, or bloat them beyond recognition. "There's this irrational notion that when there's a great idea, everybody will see it and rally around it," says Samuel Bacharach, author of Get Them on Your Side. "When you introduce an idea, you've got to think about whom you're going to introduce it to, whom you need on your side in the beginning, how you're going to increase your coalition, and at what pace you're going to keep it moving." The ideas that win are the ones whose creators use a carefully balanced mix of political and managerial competence to build a consensus. The faster, stronger, and more cleverly you do that, the more you'll be able to fend off the naysayers, critics, and tweakers.

New ideas are bound to face resistance, of course, especially if they're perceived as risky for the company. Witness the effort by Peter Labaziewicz, Kodak's director of advanced development for digital cameras, to cram two lenses, wide-angle and zoom, into a single camera. "The initial reaction was, 'That's crazy,' " he says. Two lenses, not to mention two photo sensors, would make the camera too bulky and too expensive. Worse yet, some doubters asked, "If wide-angle is so great, why hasn't anyone done it before?" Labaziewicz used the nature of the doubts themselves to build support. "If the reaction is too positive from the engineering team," he realized, "then someone has probably already figured it out" and the idea isn't novel enough. Kodak had struggled with finding unique, relevant projects, so the harsh questions signaled that this could be a winner, which helped Labaziewicz win the engineers over. He assigned the one person who shared his vision, fellow designer Ivan Drake, whom Labaziewicz calls the "English bulldog," to work tenaciously with the engineers to find lower-priced sensors and lenses that would fit in the camera. "You can't just order the engineers to do the work," says Labaziewicz. Last fall, Kodak released the EasyShare V570, which ended up being thinner than its predecessor, even with two lenses, and received good reviews.

Getting disparate groups of people on board means personalizing your idea for each of them. Scott Henson, one of the designers of Microsoft's Xbox 360 Live, which lets gamers connect with others online through the console, recognized early on that Microsoft needed to create a simple means for users to access such features as instant messaging, voice chat, and picture and music sharing. The answer, Henson and his team believed, was a button in the center of the controller. To get his way, Henson's team had to woo every Microsoft team working on the Xbox 360 and all of its developers; he pulled it off by creating hundreds of day-in-the-life scenarios that gamers would encounter in the course of using the Xbox 360, and presenting different ones "depending on the audience." For example, the folks running Microsoft's Media Center and the MSN groups saw all the situations that Live could be used for when not playing games. "Wouldn't it be cool," Henson asked them, "if I'm listening to music, and my friends can see what I'm listening to?" Henson showed the controller group another scenario where, in the middle of a game, the user could press the button and be transported into a massive online community. His team persuaded game designers by illustrating how their games would be enhanced by letting users create customized soundtracks. Henson got his button, and Xbox 360 Live, which debuted last November, now hosts a community of about 2 million people.

And what about the tweakers, the folks who always have just one little suggestion? Let 'em tweak--within limits. During the latter stages of development of a residential version of TurboChef's successful fast-cook oven, Doreen Lorenzo, COO of Frog Design, had her team create a mockup, but with interchangeable parts, from knobs to handles to touch screens. Then she let TurboChef executives experiment. "These grown men were playing Mr. Potato Head," she says. Over the course of three hours, "they got to feel it and become a part of it." Lorenzo restricted the number of creative variables--the size of the oven was fixed, for example--but the event "gave them a sense of ownership," she says. The oven debuted at the Chicago Kitchen & Bath Industry Show in April. And everybody thinks it was their idea.

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