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Know Precedes No

Updated: Jan 23, 2023

By Tony Vengrove

Today’s frenetic business pace invites alacrity and quick decision-making. Most of us have jam-packed schedules and to-do lists that rarely are completely checked-off by the end of the day. We dash into a 30-minute meeting knowing that if people start asking too many questions, a debate will erupt and we’ll never make the next meeting on time.

The preponderance of back-to-back meetings puts pressure on leaders to quickly get a lay of the land, make a hurried decision, and then race off to the next appointment. This cadence may work well for core-business matters, such as a budget meeting or review of project priorities, but that mindset is dangerous to bring into an innovation meeting.

When an idea is pitched to us, with adrenaline still racing through our system and our eyes on the clock, we set ourselves up for a quick yes or no response. If a presenter can’t quickly demonstrate the links between her idea to both corporate strategy and consumer needs, the idea is usually DOA.

A new idea is a fragile entity, rarely fully formed without flaw. What may sound brilliant to some can sound absurd to others. One thing all ideas share, however, is potential; some have more potential than others, but all have some level of opportunity. This is so important because the only way to access the idea’s potential is to keep it alive long enough so a broader group of minds can possibly shape it into a brilliant diamond.

Rushing, delivering a hasty “No” verdict, denies the opportunity to “Know” if the idea truly has potential or not. It wipes out the opportunity to experiment and learn – trying, failing, and learning are critical stepping-stones to any breakthrough idea.

Before we say no to any idea, we should be sure that we gave the opportunity due diligence; to fully understand what the presenter saw that was so exciting and relevant for the business. Remember, your team is taking time to think, create and package an idea. If you cut the discussion off too quickly, you’ll frustrate them. Do this too often and they’ll stop bringing ideas to you.

Back in my early advertising days, I recall a critical time on a cold medicine account that demanded a lot of creative thinking in a short window of time. We were working feverishly to turn insights from a major research project into a new advertising campaign before the next cold-season struck. On a hot NYC summer afternoon, a large group of us gathered in a conference room. The diverse team included some of the most senior-level executives in the agency, down to the most junior (that was me).

As the session unfolded, the conversation grew heated, ideas bouncing around wildly. As I sat and listened, I suddenly had an epiphany. I humbly raised my hand and spoke: “It seems to me that all our ideas are from the perspective of the cold sufferer. What if we flipped that around and looked through the lens of the cold virus? If you think about it from that perspective, our brand becomes the virus’s worst enemy. It could be a differentiating way to communicate our benefits and may give our creative team an opportunity to have some fun.”

“Hmmm, that’s interesting,” someone said. Then dead silence until the senior strategy-person spoke up and essentially guillotined my idea. It died then and there, completely dismissed.

Fast forward to the following winter. I was now working at a new agency and memories of that meeting were forgotten. One Saturday, as I listened to music on my car radio, on came an advertisement for that cold-medicine brand and, wouldn’t you know it, the campaign was using my idea – personified cold-viruses frightened to death of the product.  “Hey, that’s my idea!”

Although my original concept hit the proverbial brick wall, another creative team grabbed onto it. They kept it alive, refined it, made it better and sold it. They took the time to get to know the idea before they judged it.

So when I propose that “Know” should precede “No,” all I’m suggesting is that we give our ideas the time and due diligence they deserve. The next time someone shares an idea, and your gut is just begging for you to say no for expediency’s sake, take a breath and try to understand why the person senses opportunity. What is it they see that you don’t? Ask why the idea is on strategy. If it’s not on strategy, explain why you feel that way and make sure they leave the meeting understanding why it’s missing the mark.

When you do that, you keep the idea alive and empower people to continue thinking about how to bring it back on strategy so that it addresses your concerns. In essence, they walk away knowing why you said no – at least for now.

Miles Finch Innovation helps companies navigate the messy territory of corporate innovation.  We’re strategic thinking partners who can help you get unstuck and identify creative solutions to your toughest challenges.  We also love to train and speak on the subject of Creative Leadership.  Email us or call us at 860-799-7505 to learn how we can help you unlock the creative potential of your employees.

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