If I had a trunk filled with fingers, I still couldn’t count the number of bad ideas I’ve been involved in at work. Another trunk filled with toes, maybe, and we’d be getting close.
Bad ideas are unavoidable in business simply because people are fallible. Yes—including you.
Agendas, pressures, fears, and motivations combine in a steamy soup that bubbles away with decisions both good and bad.
But what happens when you’re the one who can spot those bad decisions? What happens when you can see that the bridge is out when everyone else is pumping more coal into the furnace?
When you find yourself faced with bad ideas from your boss and colleagues, here are your options.
The very thought of sitting in front of your boss and telling him or her that you think he or she is wrong is scary enough to make you keep your mouth shut—but sometimes, you have to suck it up and do the right thing.
Your success in speaking up depends completely on your method of delivery. So, instead of mouthing off and coming across as negative—which no boss in the world likes—try positioning your thinking more constructively.
For example, you could say, “Hey Larry, you know how we’re building that robot with super-advanced artificial intelligence and giving it guns for hands? Is there a sense that this might lead to robo-carnage? Perhaps we’d be better served by giving it robot fingers instead.”
When you offer your “sense” of a situation, you’re not deliberately telling anyone that they’re wrong or starting from a place of conflict. You’re simply offering an alternate point of view—a different perspective that might serve everyone better.
Perform a Pre-Mortem
If something goes awry or a project doesn’t have the intended effect, many organizations will perform a post-mortem—or, in other words, a post-project review—to figure out what went wrong and determine how to prevent a similar situation from happening again in the future.
Personally, I think these are about useful as making ukuleles for fish (no fingers, see?). More useful is the pre-mortem.
At the start of a project, whether it’s the launch a new product or service, a process change, or a business innovation, hold a pre-project review with the appropriate team of people and talk about what could happen that would derail the assignment. What are the things that could make it fail? What would prevent you from doing great work on this project? How might someone involved royally screw up?
You don’t have to be a doom-monger, but working through a pre-mortem allows you to establish strategies to deal with the most likely issues—such as shifting priorities, recruiting other team members to fill skill gaps, and mitigating uncertainty. A little proactive damage control can shine a light on bad decisions before they’re even made.
Deal With It
Nobody likes a Negative Nancy, and having someone on your team who constantly moans about all the bad decisions is bad news for everybody (especially Nancy).
So if things are already going a little pear-shaped, sometimes you have to simply get on board and deal with it. Instead of whining about the problem to anyone who’ll listen, get your team around a table and work through possible solutions. Come up with an idea to navigate through a delicate situation rather than putting your head in the sand. Work with the people around you instead of spewing a righteous “I told you so.”
Even if you were right about the bad idea from the get-go, have the courage to let go of your need to be right and get involved in finding the best way through.
It’s natural for your peers and leaders to make bad decisions and for organizations to head down the wrong path from time to time. But there’s a big difference between that and a toxic environment where bad decisions and the resulting fallout are the norm.
Some bosses suck, and some workplaces are filled with a lot of wasted energy and a whole lot of hot air, and that can result in an environment where you’ll spend more time patching up bad decisions than doing great work. That leaves you with a choice to make: stick around or walk away?
I’d suggest that the line in the sand is where it’s clear that the company’s decisions defy your personal values—for example, a discriminatory recruitment practice, a business restructure based on greed rather than value, or crushing creativity in favor of certainty. Sure, you can try to influence things, but sometimes it’s right, appropriate, and even brave to get out.
Sometimes, the most courageous response to a truly bad idea is to go do something better.