I used to get frustrated sharing ideas. An idea would land in my brain and I'd share it with someone else. When I did, one of two things would happen: 1. Nothing. 2. They would listen to me, and then express my idea back, but with a unique spin.
I’d get frustrated if they didn’t repeat my idea precisely back to me. I’d reiterate my original idea, and clarify where they had it wrong. They’d repeat my idea back to me - again, slightly different. I’d get frustrated and then nothing would happen. I was getting it all wrong.
Ideas are important to us here at Yellow Pencil. In fact, we’ve gone as far as to specify this in one of our three main core values: We respect and encourage ideas. But how do you actually do that? And what does encouraging an idea really look like? Over the years I’ve read a lot, made a bunch of mistakes, and figured a few things out.
There are three elements that are important when considering ideas. Pitching, receiving, and executing. Pitching an idea is not throwing it away (i.e. pitching in a wastebasket); it’s using skill and timing to send it (like a baseball) to someone else. You have to focus on the person you’re sending your idea to, and make sure the conditions are right. Is the person ready for the pitch?
It’s also important to consider the role of the person receiving the pitch. To catch a baseball, you need to be facing the pitcher; ready, with your hands up. It’s a good idea to call out and tell them you’re ready, let them know if you caught the ball and if it was a good throw, and if there’s any improvements that can be made.
Ensuring something happens with your idea is just as important as pitching and receiving. Without a focus on the steps to bring an idea to life, nothing happens. Nothing and nowhere is a really easy place for ideas to end up. So to ensure your ideas don’t hit the dirt when you pitch them, there are a few factors you need to consider; pitching, receiving, and executing.
How to share ideas (pitching)
- Find the right time
- Identify where you’re at
- Tell the story around your idea
- Listen to feedback
Find the right time
I used to grab people in the hall as they were walking past, ask if they had a minute, and start sharing an idea that was rolling around in my head. This can work (if you have the right moment and the stars align), but that rarely happens. Ensure you make the right space for your idea. Think about the other person who will be hearing your idea - do they need a lot of context, or will they get it right away. If you’re sharing an engineering concept with another engineer you work with, it will be an easy conversation and a hallway or desk hovering chat may be the right fit. If you’re a software developer sharing an idea for how to map out a new iterative process with your design team, you may want to find some white boards, a quiet room, and some coffee. The best approach is to ask someone if they have some time to hear your idea. If they say no - respect that, and find a time and space that works, or find someone else to share your idea with. New ideas are exciting, but to ensure they are received, you have to ensure the time and space are right.
Identify where you’re at
There’s nothing more deflating than sharing an idea and then having someone get way too caught up in details. How can the receiver be such a jerk to pick your idea to death - when it’s just a young sapling in your brain, and you’re simply exploring the feasibility? Your idea isn’t a tree ready for climbing around in yet; it needs water and sunlight. It’s important to provide the receiver with some context. First, you can identify that it’s a new idea to you. Explain that you haven’t thought through all the details and that you simply need to bounce this off someone before you invest more time. Or maybe it’s an idea that you have invested weeks or years thinking about, and it’s very important to you. Ensuring someone knows this will prevent the receiver from scoffing lightly at the idea. They’ll lean in and pay more attention if they understand how important it is to you. This is also a great moment to think through what you want from the receiver. Do you want help figuring out next steps, or connecting you with someone to build the idea, or simply reflecting on whether this idea is worth pursuing?
Tell the story behind your idea
When an idea lands in your head, there are often a few things that happened to put you in the space where the idea resonated. Apparently, Isaac Newton was sitting under an apple tree thinking about the world and how it worked when an apple fell on his head. When you imagine someone under a tree on a hill, sitting on the grass, looking out over the fields in a reflective state - gravity makes a lot of sense. Find a way to give the receiver the same background you had when the idea came to you. Just enough to provide a picture of what was happening and who was around will help the receiver connect to your thinking.
Listen to feedback
Listening is hard. Especially if the receiver doesn’t say what you expect. And if you’re like me - what you want to hear is, “THAT’S THE BEST IDEA EVER”, which has never happened to me. What often happens is someone will ask a question. Or give you their idea, which is similar, or very different. This can be a defeating moment, as it may feel that the receiver just doesn’t get it. If you listen to what they’re saying and why it can be a really useful moment. But that’s hard to do. This is another area where finding the right time is important. If you only have 60 seconds in an elevator to share an idea, or if there are 3 minutes before your next meeting, you won’t have time to listen to feedback. Active listening skills are important. Pay attention, show you’re listening, provide feedback, defer judgment, and respond appropriately.
Now that we’ve explored how to pitch ideas, let’s look at how we might receive them as well.
How to receive ideas
There’s a concept in script writing around how to pitch and receive ideas. If you’re writing a script and you throw out an idea, the person who is hearing it should try and change it. If it’s a really good idea they’ll want to pick it up, bounce it around in their brain, and then add to it. If they don’t add to it - it’s not a good idea. This was really interesting for me, as I often wanted to communicate my idea to someone, have them understand it, and then repeat it back to me verbatim. Appreciating that ideas are living and understanding how someone else hears them (and responds to them) is important to sharing ideas.
So what do you need to do as the receiver?
- Find the right time (or make time)
- Really listen
- Ask questions
- Prompt for next steps
Find the right time
As the person hearing an idea, it’s important to either be present and listen, or identify it’s not the right time. If all you have on your mind is the list of things you need to get done before the end of the day, or that tremendous sandwich you’re about to eat - find a better time to listen.
It really is difficult to listen well. Focus on what the pitcher is saying and then try to pick up their story, their context, and their energy around an idea. Often when someone is sharing an idea, they’re talking about the parts that excite them - not necessarily the parts that make the most sense, or the parts that give you the details you need to understand them. Focus on what they’re trying to communicate: Do their eyes light up? Are they scribbling madly on a piece of paper or white board? Think about what’s making them excited, and try and understand that piece of what they’re sharing.
It is very rare that someone shares an idea so you will marvel at their perfectly formed plan. Typically, they need help filling out an idea, testing it to see if it’s feasible or worth pursuing, and understanding if it’s new or if someone has done this before. There are a lot of ways you can help someone build their idea. Try and frame questions in a way that will help them develop their thought process. Try and ask questions that will help you understand. If you are new to the topic, or don’t have great questions, you can always use the 5 whys.
Prompt for next steps
One of the best questions you can ask, and one of the main responsibilities of someone receiving an idea, is to ask what’s next. You can ask about what they still need to figure out, who they need to talk to next, what they need to build to validate, or what resources they need to get moving. Prompting for action is key to making ideas happen.
So we’ve pitched our idea’s and learned how to receive them, but now what?
Executing on ideas
When you’ve successful pitched an idea, and someone has received it, then the next step is to take some action. Ideas are precious and fragile, but unless they have action, they don’t come to life. So how do you breathe life into an idea?
- Manage your energy
- Focus on action steps
- Don’t multitask, just do one thing
- Capture, identify, process
- Seek constraints
Manage your energy
The first thing is to focus. You may have a list of 100 ideas, you may have a list of 1, and there are always many paths to execute on your idea. But there is only so much energy and focus in your day. So you need to consider how to apply it carefully to ensure all your energy goes into bringing the idea to life. Think about what would be the best next step, and list out some ideas and ways you can move forward.
Focus on action steps
Now that we’ve listed the ways that will help us make progress with our idea - pick the steps that have action. These tasks will ideally lead to tangible, visible progress, which in turn, will also be the most inspiring and give you the energy to continue. The more you focus on action steps, the more action you will take, which will bring your idea to life.
Don’t multitask, just do the one thing
When you’re working on an idea and managing your energy, keep your focus on one thing at a time. When you work through pitching and receiving an idea, it’s easy to have a lot of ideas come to you at once. To shift on to executing on an idea, you need to bring your focus onto just one thing.
Capture / Identify/ Process
If you’re anything like me, it’s hard to stay focused. So the easiest way to keep focus is to capture any ideas, options or steps as they come into your head. I write my ideas on a sticky note or in a notebook so I can follow up with them later. Capturing them means I can stay focused on the step I’m on right now, but not lose what just came into my head. Once I’m done with the step I’m working through, I review my current list and reassess to see what next step is best, and then work through my next action.
Where you can, identify the constraints that will govern what you do. There will always be limits on your time and resources, so identifying them early will be helpful in bringing focus and prioritization to what you should be working on. Sometimes it’s helpful to push through your constraints, but knowing them and working with (or around them) will help move you to action and ultimately, to the successful execution of your ideas.
I want to give a big thanks to the following books that helped me in my thinking around how to share ideas. If you’d like to read deeper on this subject - pick up one of these books (or all of them).