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When the Best Idea Wins

19 June 2018

Janie read The Power Of An Idea Meritocracy by Edward D. Hess and was interested to read his research on the power of listening to ideas over experience.

Tags: design thinking, ed hess, innovation, janie read

I was browsing the Darden Ideas to Action website last week and came across The Power Of An Idea Meritocracy by Ed Hess. I’ve been a fan of Ed’s work since we worked together at the Darden School of Business, and I wrote about Ed’s tips for quieting your humility and honing your ego a few years ago. In his latest article, Ed encourages us to embrace the power of an Idea Meritocracy. “An Idea Meritocracy is an environment where the best idea wins. The best idea is determined by the quantity and quality of the data, not by positional power.”

Ed’s description of an Idea Meritocracy reminds me a lot of design thinking. An Idea Meritocracy creates “…a culture that promotes psychological safety, candor, confronting the brutal facts, permission to speak freely and permission to do rapid, small, low-risk experiments. That culture enables and drives iterative learning behaviors.” Rapid, small, low-risk experiments and iterative learning are key components of design thinking. In practice, this means that people shouldn’t be afraid to fail quickly and to learn from that failure, rather than being disheartened by it. While that’s easier said than done, leaders can set the tone by encouraging candor and data-driven debate.

Ed researched several organizations who have created Idea Meritocracies including Google, Intuit, Pixar Animation Studios, and IDEO. One of the key themes for an Idea Meritocracy to work properly is that pay level and experience are irrelevant. He shares a quote from the book How Google Works, “Unfortunately, in most companies experience is the winning argument. We call these places ‘tenurocracies’ because power derives from tenure, not merit.” This is a new term for me, but I’ve certainly worked in places where tenure carried a lot of weight, and newer team members were scared to contribute ideas.

Ed’s research urges us to embrace a “new smart,” where we measure our worth not by what we know, but by how we learn, adapt, and collaborate. We must change our definition of “being smart…because in a world of smart technology no human will know more facts than a smart machine.” Embracing the “new smart” is a big shift for both organizations and individuals because it changes everything from how we hire to what we attach our egos to. The next time I find myself defending an idea or disappointed because I tried something that didn’t work, I’ll try to remind myself of the Idea Meritocracy, the “new smart,” and that my contribution is more than my idea – it’s what I do with that idea.


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