Why doesn’t anyone act on your ideas?

One of the top reasons people get frustrated at work – and sometimes leave their current role – is that they have bright ideas on what their company should do, and yet no one in their leadership does anything about it. I have been on several sides of this problem over my career – I have been deeply frustrated myself with my ideas getting rejected, I have left good roles because of it, I have been the manager who did not act on good recommendations, I have been the manager of managers who did not act on recommendations, and I have watched people my team leave frustrated , and many more.

focus photo of yellow paper near trash can

Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels.com

It is tiring , both physically and mentally, when this happens , it and leaves a lot of people bitter for long periods of time . I also know a few folks who took bitter feelings from their work to their graves. I don’t have a perfect solution to this – but I can offer a framework that might be of some use to think through the problem and reach your own conclusion.

  • It may not be such an original idea after all

While we, who had the idea that we took up the chain, have every reason to think our idea is original, it may not be the first time the bosses have heard it. And if it is an idea they have heard for a long time – they probably will tune out really quick and not even bother to tell you why they think it won’t work. If you don’t have a relationship with the decision makers – or don’t have a mentor who can fill you in on why your idea was dismissed – you are bound to go through some frustration.

  • In the long term, every one is dead

While every leader likes to talk about the long term, very few have the luxury to make every move with long term interests in mind. Any idea that potentially negatively impacts near future , even though it has long term merit – has a high chance of getting shot down. Other than the very top execs, usually no leader stays in their job for several years to see through long term ideas. So to save their compensation, reduce stress or whatever – they favor short term gains. Its not your fault – but you should know what motivates your boss to make a decision.  I have often had success taking multiple ideas together to my bosses as a portfolio to show there are ways to mitigate short term issues while still investing for the future.

  • What is a priority today for your boss may be different from what you think it is

You may be stunned to see your boss quickly turn down your no brainer idea of improving profit by 20%. You might not have known that she already had a line of sight to get 20% or more profit (that obviously you dit=d not know), and was just trying to see how she can increase revenue too . If you knew – you may have changed your pitch, but you did not. Ideally she should have told you – but in her defense, she also only has the same number of hours in a day as you do.

  • How is your track record on execution ?

For every ten people with bright ideas, there is usually only one person who is capable of flawless execution. When you take an idea to the boss, and you don’t say who should run with this idea (perhaps thinking its not your place to say so) – the default assumption (usually because most decisions unfortunately get made with limited thinking time)  is that you meant to run with this yourself or the boss should run with it. If your own track record on execution is limited, and the boss cannot think of who can make it work – the chances are that your idea won’t move forward.

  • Timing is everything

If you think your idea has all the merit in the world, you may still not get anywhere with it if your timing is bad. This is often the last hurdle, and the hardest. In many cases, you will need to do your homework extensively – and even then it could be that the boss is irritated with something else and you need some luck on your side. One time not very long ago, I was about to walk into a CIO’s office to make the final presentation on a large project . As I was sitting in the sofa in the waiting room outside his office, his EA (who used to support a friend of mine for a long time) whispered to me that he had just heard that the CIO’s son had run into a utility pole on the street with a new car , and the dad was pretty upset. As I walked into the office a couple of minutes later, I offered to reschedule the meeting to the following week which he quickly and gratefully accepted. And we won the project. I have lost several deals in my career where I don’t quite know exactly why I lost. But it did teach me to do my homework better – and it has helped.

  • The decision makers are not always qualified to make the decision

This should only be considered after you have ruled out all the things you potentially could do differently, and not as the default assumption.to begin with!

Not everyone that sits in the fancy office may be qualified to take a decision on your idea. Some managers have not kept up with the latest advances in their fields. Some may not have skills to analyze a business case presented to them. Some may be too insecure to let you take credit for a good idea. And yet – strangely to you perhaps – they may still have the skills to be very good at their job. This may be because their own leadership have not done a good job at developing them. This may be because they never prioritized up-skilling periodically. It could be due to a lot of reasons – but irrespective of the cause, it happens a lot. This is a hard challenge to over come for the people who want to present ideas to them. I usually start with offering an education session to give them some background on what is new, what is the opportunity in the market etc – and then give them some time to assimilate that before I pitch the idea. Another strategy that has worked for me is to offer to go with them up the chain to make the case, so that they can defer to me for finer details of the case. And when I have extreme conviction in my idea – and after I fail convincing the immediate decision makers, I go to their managers. Its not an easy decision to make – and I try hard to not do it till I have exhausted every other option. I have paid the price for jumping hierarchy multiple times in my career – but I only do this with my eyes open and not irrationally.

Dealing with the frustration

Whatever you do, I hope you don’t try to take it out on your family, your dog or your friends. I have seen that happen too many times – and it is terrible.

First thing to realize is that it is not the end of the world in most cases. I have often been advised by my mentors to ignore/forget and move on. If you can take that advice – its perhaps the best case and you should do it.  Unfortunately for me , I cannot forget that easily. So I brood for some time, and then start vigorously analyzing what happened.

Most often I figure this is something I could have done better – usually along the lines of developing better relationships, improving my skills, etc. If I cannot make this determination myself – I run it by my mentors and explain my analysis to them. They often can help clarify my thinking very quickly since they are not emotionally attached to this as much as I am. Some times (only after some time passes, and only if I know I have a trusted relationship with them) – I take it back to the people who rejected the idea to make requests on helping me understand why they took the decision they took.

Some parting thoughts

  1. For my own ideas, I put them through a lot more scrutiny and preparation before pitching it to people who need to act. Generally I have more success than I have had in the past by choosing to chase fewer ideas with higher conviction.
  2. When my team comes to me with their ideas, if I don’t think it is worth implementing – I now take a lot more time to explain why I think it does not have the merit they thought it had. And I have become a bit better at getting more input from experts to evaluate an idea since I know my limitations .
  3. While I have always known that developing a network is super important, the appreciation for that has obviously improved over time. You need to know more people than you think you will ever need, have depth in those relationships, and you need to pay it forward all the time without taking a transactional view of the world
  4. You need a plan B. If you have terrific conviction in your idea and it is not going anywhere – you cannot give up. But you will live with frustration if you don’t have good choices to fall back on. In an extreme case – do you know enough people in your network and have enough skills to find another place to see your idea thrive? . Having the network, skills etc improves your confidence and that helps you see more of your ideas thrive !

AI in Cancer care and managing the great expectations around it

I woke up on Saturday morning and read this WSJ article IBM has a Watson Dilemma . As always when such articles get published, this was followed by a lot of criticism on twitter, linkedin etc – and I read most of them. And today morning, I saw this article on IBM blog site from Dr John Kelly titled Watson Health : Setting the record state .

I am very hesitant about expressing my personal opinion

Especially when my employer is the one being criticized. I am not an impartial party here at all – I am an executive at IBM ( Not a very senior one by any stretch – there are a couple of levels between me and the CEO) , I hold IBM stock , I am not a company spokes person, and till recently I managed a business of which Watson and Watson Health consulting services were a part of. Also, Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote about my opinions on IBM Watson after an analyst wrote an article that I thought I should weigh in, in a personal capacity.

On the other hand, AI is a topic I have great interest and some expertise in (Again, I am not a hands on ML developer or anything like that today – though that might potentially be one option in future given my passion).

I lost my dear Aunt Geetha to cancer a few years ago – she was a second mom to me. I was at the hospital with her when she fought the deadly disease for her last few days (I was on vacation in Trivandrum) , and I spoke with several folks at the hospital whose dear ones were going through the same battle. So anything that helps fight cancer is a topic I have a deep interest in, and one where I will happily donate my time and money.

So for what little it is worth, here is my take and I am just going to address two specific issues

Is Marketing Hype the big culprit ?

I am not a marketer by trade, though I appreciate high quality professional marketing. When I am in a sales role, I prefer a soft selling approach – and that might be because I am an engineer first and foremost. So, I totally get it when IBM Marketing gets accused of going overboard by someone on social media. I have also been in this industry long enough to know that without massive awareness created by marketing, no young technology gets the air cover it needs to mature. I personally know of no client who has made an enterprise purchase only because they saw awesome vendor marketing. Marketing opens doors no doubt – but clients subject their purchasing decisions to an array or dimensions ( proof of concepts, risk management, analyst reports , references etc)  before someone signs a check.

What I readily agree is that marketing does contribute to setting big expectations for new technologies. And big expectations are good – as long as everyone gets the nuances that go with it. When it comes to finding good solutions for deadly diseases cancer, I doubt it helps to not have bold goals. I always encourage folks to ask good questions – and proceed with eyes open.

Is it bad that Watson agrees with doctors most of the time ?

To state the obvious, it would be terrible if Watson and doctors disagreed all the time. But is it bad if they agreed most of the time ? The WSJ article implies that since human doctors agree with Watson most of the time, they stop using it or at least limit its use.

There are commercial use cases that follow the same pattern as cancer diagnostics. For example, Watson can ingest training manuals of several machines and can have a Q&A with a mechanic or a customer who is faced with a live problem. An experienced mechanic usually agrees with Watson most of the time, and probably does not see much value. But think about the less experienced mechanic, or a customer who is not technical. The solution is of high value to them. The ideal situation is that the experienced mechanic continues to train Watson (via agreeing and correcting when wrong) and Watson helps several lesser experienced mechanics and customers from what it has learned. That is the incentive to have the experienced mechanic continue to use Watson.

Sitting outside the room where my Aunt was struggling with her fight, one thing was abundantly clear to me. In USA, we have several oncologists and specialist hospitals that are the envy of the world. That is not universally true. Even in the hospital I was at with my aunt in India, there were plenty of oncologists – but nowhere close the number that is needed to cover the sheer number of patients. They have very little time to keep up with the latest in cancer care – or to even spend enough time with one of their patients. They deal with patients who flock there (and several of them thankfully don’t have cancer and was sent there because of poor diagnosis where they initially went to ), and even if that process can be streamlined – they can save more lives.

Now think of all the hospitals in a country with a billion people – and several of the people not diagnosed or treated just because of poor access to specialists !

I also vividly remember the line in front of the radiologist’s office there in India – one very tired lady trying her best to read images and make notes while highly stressed out patients and their relatives started shouting around her. I felt terrible for the doctor and the people around her.  With advances in computer vision, this scenario can be improved exponentially.

It it bad that Watson cannot figure out great solutions for rare cases ?

Ideally, I would love for AI to help us solve cases where humans have very limited options. I don’t think tech will solve this in near term. But that is not to say there is nothing tech can do today. It still can find useful information more quickly for a doctor than they can find manually, and WSJ article does talk about that.

There are several obstacles to getting AI to work as we need it to – and getting data organized for Ai to learn from is one big one. Even in areas where we have been at it for decades – like loading legacy data into a new ERP system, it takes a lot of effort . You can only imagine the additional complexity included in getting data in the form that an AI model needs to learn from. It is not an insurmountable problem, and newer approaches keep coming up and at some point it will become mainstream, and easy to estimate the effort.

That is where I see the true potential of AI , including Watson ! It helps take expertise from people and institutions that have it and move it places where no such thing exists. And if we can save one more life, or reduce the pain for one more patient, or reduce the grief of one more family who will lose a dear one- I think it is totally worthwhile. I sure hope we don’t give up on this journey !