Managing the Idea Monkey

When we think about the people who make innovation happen, we divide the world into two parts: idea monkeys and ringleaders. You need both if you intend to create anything new. Walt Disney was a genius, but if not for his brother Roy, Walt's flights of fancy would never have turned into realities.

Idea monkeys serve as connectors, readily joining numerous thoughts to new ones. They don't concern themselves with the myriad of reasons an idea might not work; instead they choose to pour their energy into possibilities. They are upbeat. Remarkably talented. And too often a major pain to rein in.

Do you manage these kinds of people? Then you are a ringleader (as in the person in the center ring of the circus).

A ringleader who knows how to awaken and manage the idea monkeys in an organization serves as an incredibly valuable resource. Since idea monkeys can be a handful, let us share eight ideas we have found helpful in managing them.

1. Keep the idea monkey's energy focused on where innovation happens. As you know, we believe innovation occurs at the synchronized intersection of the need and the idea, and the communication that connects the two. If the monkey comes to you with an unmet market need, tell him to find the idea and communication to go with it. Does he have a great message that your company should use? Terrific. Have him explain how it links to a compelling market need and an idea to fill it. When he tells you this is hard, agree. Say you are asking him to come up with the equivalent of an innovation trifecta. Monkeys love this kind of challenge.

2. Clearly define, quantify, and prioritize needs for the monkey to sink her teeth into. This has two advantages. First, her ideas will start out closer to the "finish line," because, presumably, she will concentrate on a key organization need, one that you can spell out for her. Second, the clear path to follow will make it easier for her to focus. As you know, monkeys tend to get distracted.

3. Further focus the idea monkey's efforts with clear objectives: "We are looking for a product that does X." "We need a service that does Y." "We want to create $100 million in incremental revenue in 24 months. It must leverage our core competencies in manufacturing, be branded under our name, and be patented protected." These sorts of things can function as guide rails.

4. Measure monkeys' progress on a regular basis. Set short-term goals to keep them engaged.

5. Create and share rewards for both monkeys and ringleaders. It will subtly underscore that monkeys need to work and play well with others.

6. Overcome the inherent fear of failure by making failure a positive part of your culture. Celebrate failing forward. Monkeys will feel liberated if you do.

7. Make it fun. Whenever possible, don't say "thou shalt not" or even "don't." You can get the same message across with positive (and even fun) language. Why do you want to laugh a little at work? Simple. Fun is the antidote to fear. A scared monkey is an unproductive monkey.

8. Don't let them get bored. Bored monkeys are not only unhappy monkeys but also potentially destructive ones. (They will find something to do with all that energy.) So, as tempting as it feels to give them a series of short-term tasks they can knock off in their sleep, don't. It benefits everyone if you give them your hardest challenges.

Idea monkeys can turn you into a star—if you manage them correctly.

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