Want to Kill a Great Idea? Ask 'What About' Questions

Last Updated Mar 16, 2010 1:34 PM EDT

New ideas must be exposed to challenge, question, and clarification. But if managers don't understand the right way to run an evaluation process, even a cure for the common cold will collapse under a barrage of "what about?" questions from well-meaning (or not) colleagues and partners.

"It's just hard to have robust answers about an unknown future state," writes innovation expert Scott Anthony on HBR.org. "Too frequently, taking the time to answer 'What about...' questions doesn't bring you any closer to achieving the goal of creating booming growth businesses."

Many of us already know this is true. It's the moment just after glorious inspiration strikes, when we start to ponder how we can sell it to the organization. We can largely predict who is going to raise questions in order to:

  • Appear smart to the boss by offering a wide range of (largely unfounded) negative scenarios.
  • Make sure they are on record as being skeptical about an idea should it go down in flames, but offering "supportive" vetting should it be a winner.
  • Promote their own career and ideas by throwing water on the good work of others.
Anthony offers another reason why what ifs kill ideas: It's because they are often raised from established interests and powerful incumbents inside the company who have a stake in the status quo.

The solution? Replace rounds of what if with early and persistent market testing. Says Anthony:

"Substitute early action for never-ending analysis. Figure out the quickest, cheapest way to do something market-facing to start the iterative process that so frequently typifies innovation."
Read his incredibly insightful post, How to Kill Innovation: Keep Asking Questions, for more details, then come back here and tell us how you deal with getting the "What about?" runaround.

(Why image by e-magic, CC 3.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.