Controlling the Good Idea Fairy

December 6, 2011 By Christian Knutson, PE, PgMP, PMP

The good idea fairy is insidious.  Sure, he comes on meaning well and espouses great outcomes and high returns.  But he shows up in the eleventh hour just when the moment of execution is about to arrive, just when the moment of truth is upon you.  Right at the wrong time.  And he brings with him a whole list of unnecessary changes and additional work.

As a leader, you must control the good idea fairy and the only way to do so is through courage and preparation.  You will battle him on every major undertaking in which you do not call the shots.  You will battle him when you least expect it.  So plan your response now so you will be ready.

Knowing the Enemy

Not familiar with the Good Idea Fairy?  The origin of the term is in the U.S. military and describes an evil, mythical creature that whispers advice and ideas into the ears of leadership, causing hundreds of unnecessary changes and countless wasted man-hours.  The term may have it’s origin in the military, but sightings of the good idea fairy can happen anywhere faulty ideas enter the brains of leaders and decision makers.  Think you’re immune?  Ever completed a task on which you were inexperienced or confused?  Do you have a hard time listening to advice or input from others?  If so, then you are a likely candidate for a visit by the good idea fairy.

The good idea fairy preys on the inexperienced, easily confused, and leaders unable to listen to sound advice.  How do you avoid it’s evil intentions?

Surround Yourself with Subject Matter Experts.  You don’t know everything, nor will you ever.  Nor should you.  When you’re handed a project to lead and you don’t know how to solve each minute component, find those that do and enlist their support.

Listen to Good Advice.  Everybody has an opinion.  But not everyone has good advice.  A good leader develops the intuition to tell the difference, and actually listens to it.  Listen to everyone’s input, then make the decision on the good advice.  If you listen, you’ll know which is which.

Eliminate Confusion With a Decision Making Process.  Confused on where to start with the project you’ve been handed?  Use a decision-making process. If you have a hard time with processes, then at least define the problem clearly.  Once you know what you’re trying to accomplish, then you can begin investing time towards solving that problem.  If you lack a process, check out the post on Framing Decisions to begin.

Establishing Control

If you’re in a leadership position, you can put the good idea fairy back in his box through controls you establish early on.  Some great control mechanisms include:

Set a Good Idea Fairy Cut-off Date (GIFCO).  In solving hard projects, ideas are good to have.  It’s called brainstorming.  However, at some point the ideas aren’t helpful anymore, and that’s the point when the GIFCO needs to be set.  Look at the schedule of the project you have, then determine the date after which good ideas are no longer useful.  Then broadcast that date loudly to all stakeholders.

Feed the Good Idea Fairy. As mentioned, brainstorming is good.  It gets all stakeholders involved and can lead to innovative and smart solutions.  You can feed the good idea fairy by holding a brainstorming session or by getting vector checks from your boss/client.  Doing either ensures that everyone has a chance to contribute their ideas, which can go a long way towards keeping the good idea fairy in the box.

State Expectations and Constraints Up Front.  Another breeding ground in which the good idea fairy operates is the region of no expectations and limited constraints.  Think about it:  no expectations, no constraints means sky’s the limit!  However, every project has expectations and constraints.  To keep the little guy in the box, state the expectations and constraints clearly and state them early in the project.  It might not eliminate the good idea fairy from visiting entirely, however, you’ll have a record of expectations and constraints on which to refer.

Don’t Ask for Input if You Don’t Want It.  Working a project on a tight timeline or one you understand thoroughly?  Then don’t derail your efforts by asking for input if you don’t want it.  Remember, the good idea fairy wants to sow confusion and frustration by introducing additional work.  Don’t give him a chance to engage when there isn’t a reason.

As a leader, your job is to make good decisions, use resources wisely, and take care of your people by, among other things, not wasting their time.  Running down your “good ideas”, which aren’t founded on good logic, doesn’t play into the equation.  Work for someone who’s prone to visits from the good idea fairy?  Then respectively question the rationale.  Doing so controls the good idea fairy and strengthens your leadership.

“Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you have.”  Emile Chartier

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