Jobs: Kill Your Good Ideas

Last Updated Oct 29, 2008 9:50 AM EDT

  • Steve Jobs tells it like it is.The Find: According to an anecdote told to Bob Sutton, Steve Jobs recommends not only ruthlessly killing bad ideas, but also axing many of the good ones to ensure those that survive get all the resources they need to be fully realized.
  • The Source: Sutton's Work Matters blog.
The Takeaway: There's been plenty of talk on BNET lately about the necessity of failure, including letting your team tinker with lots of bad ideas. But according to Sutton, Jobs believes in a corollary of this principle: brainstorming and generating lots of ideas is necessary, but the truly hard and truly essential part of the process is pruning back the profusion of possibilities. Great companies not only generate a ton of ideas and kill the bad ones, they also kill a lot of the good ones.

Sutton heard this particular piece of insight from an executive ("I won't name his company, as they were in trouble then and still are in trouble.") who heard it at a talk Jobs gave to the senior team of the company. Jobs advised them,

that killing bad ideas isn't that hard -- lots of companies, even bad companies, are good at that.... What is really hard â€" and a hallmark of great companies â€" is that they kill at lot of good ideas.... for any single good idea to succeed, it needs a lot of resources, time, and attention, and so only a few ideas can be developed fully. Successful companies are tough enough to kill a lot of good ideas so those few that survive have a chance of reaching their full potential and being implemented properly.
It's a harsh notion, but one Sutton feels has some merit, not just in regards to products, but also when it comes to design. "If every good idea is thrown into a product," Sutton says, "the result is a terrible and confusing experience. (This seems to be the problem with the latest version of Microsoft Word, it does everything, so therefore is very annoying and confusing to use.)"

If you're serious about following Jobs' advice, Sutton recommends you take heed of the old adage, "what gets measured, gets managed," and set up some metrics. He suggests two, one obvious, one less so. First, how many good ideas are killed? If the number's too low, you know it's time to make changes. Second, are people complaining (or leaving) because their ideas have been sacrificed? Sutton explains: "if no one is complaining about this problem, then there aren't enough being killed. The complaining, and even people leaving, is bad. But if no one is complaining, it is a worse sign."

The Question: Pruning works for plants, but will it work for ideas, or is it unlikely most businesses will have spare good ideas to trim?

(Image of Steve Jobs by whatcounts, CC 2.0)

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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.