We already thought of that, and it didn’t work.

How often I have heard that statement from teams when we have discussed potential new innovation ideas.

It is often repeated by people who have been in the organisation longer, and who may have had a similar idea previously. They mean it as a warning to not put in much effort since the idea probably isn’t very good.

But what most people don’t realise is the subtext of what is actually being said.

The real meaning of “We already thought of that, and it didn’t work” is actually “We already thought of that, and we (I) couldn’t make it work”.

So sometimes the idea itself might not be that bad, but there reasons why it didn’t previously work.

These reasons might include:

  • Once the idea was suggested, no resources were allocated to develop it
  • The leadership team at the time wanted to keep the status quo
  • The people who suggested the idea did not have the skills to develop it
  • The market wasn’t ready
  • There was no clear business case or way to make the idea profitable
  • The company was not set up to develop it
  • A lack of luck required to make it a success
  • Many, many more possible reasons

After all, for any idea to work, it needs to have the following three criteria: desirability, viability and feasibility.

And even if there is demand for an idea, that does not mean that at that moment in time the company has the capabilities to develop the idea (feasibility) or a way to make it financially valuable (viability).

The problem arises when these leaders then adopt a mindset of “well, if we (I) could not make it happen, then you can’t either”.

There is a degree of pride and shame wrapped up in the perceived failure of the past.

And if someone else were to attempt the idea again, but this time succeed, it would show that the previous group who tried were not just unlucky, but incapable. That would tarnish that person’s reputation.

As a result, these frustrated elders will sometimes try to prevent new teams attempting something which previously failed. This results in a large number of potentially great and valuable ideas being ignored.

Even though sometimes, the main reason why an idea didn’t succeed is simply that it was the wrong time for it.

Research by Bill Gross of 150 startups found that the #1 reason why those startups succeeded or failed was down to timing.

So even though an idea didn’t previously succeed, doesn’t mean it could not succeed now, especially if the market demand and technology have evolved in the interim period.

One great way to react when you come across a leader who says “We already thought of that, and it didn’t work.” is to try to turn them from a skeptic to a sponsor.

If you can bring them into your development process for the idea, and ask them what they think led to the idea not working previously, you can accomplish two important things:

  1. You will learn valuable insights about what led to the previous failure
  2. The leader sharing their knowledge can feel part of the success of the new attempt at the idea, rather than the failure of not making it work previously

This simple act can turn a previous skeptic into a powerful sponsor going forward.

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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of Ideatovalue.com and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.