Ideas with IMPACT

By Dave Ulrich | August 8, 2018

Impact occurs when ideas are focused, outlive their creator as they are advanced by others, are applied and adapted, and create sustainable change. How can leaders have ideas with impact?

About 20 years ago, we published the book Organization Learning Capability: Generating and Generalizing Ideas with Impact. The book did not “go viral” (you are not alone in never having heard about it!), but the concept of ideas with impact has been picked up as a masthead, a consulting agenda, and a tag line for our company (

For most of my career, I have admired thought leaders who anticipated, framed, and created ideas with impact (highlight on ideas). In my work, I have tried to shape and share ideas (through books) about organizations (Organization Capability, Boundaryless Organization, Abundant Organization, Victory Through Organization), leadership (Leadership Code, Leadership Brand, Leadership Sustainability, Leadership Capital Index), and human resources (HR Champions, HR Value Proposition, HR Transformation, HR Competencies).

Lately, I have begun to recognize that thought leadership (ideas) without impact is like designing a beautiful home but not building it, planning a trip but not taking it, or planting seeds but not harvesting the produce.

With the advent of technology, new ideas constantly bombard us in TED talks, LinkedIn articles, social media networks, chat rooms, blogs, 24-hour news cycles, and on and on. Obviously, not all ideas should have impact (see column on assessing technology innovations). Some ideas need to be weeded out so that other better ideas can grow. But a good idea is like a healthy seed that should do more than merely reproduce itself; as it grows (and has impact), it should multiply many times over. Impact occurs when ideas are focused, outlive their creator as they are advanced by others, are applied and adapted, and create sustainable change.

How can leaders have ideas with impact?

Focus: What do I/we want?

Impactcomes from being clear about what you want as a leader and focusing limited resources on those things that matter most. Not everything worth doing is worth doing well. Not every site I visit on a trip deserves equal attention. Figuring out what one wants most requires recognizing one’s values so that they can be lived, knowing one’s strengths so that they can be built upon, and seizing opportunities consistent with these values and strengths.

When I coach leaders, I often help leaders clarify what matters most to them with the question, “What would success look and feel like to you?” This simple question is not easy to answer because “success” often has many dimensions and may vary over time and situation. But knowing how and when to converge around what success means for both individuals and groups enables impact.

In a team or organization with multiple goals, focusing on what the organization most requires to win in the marketplace is crucial. One organization shrank their 289 goals to 70 and felt they had focused (not!). Another had a four-part mission, a five-part vision, six values, six goals, seven strategies, and ten objectives. Their 38 “priorities” were actually “concept clutter” and obfuscated impact. To focus a team, I often ask each team member to divide 100 points across their priorities. The wrong strategy is to divide the 100 points equally. If in an example of a company with ten goals, each goal should not get equal attention (ten points per goal); the priority might get 40 points, then 30, then 10, etc. This can prove to create the right priorities and even eliminate irrelevant goals that detract from impact.

When we focus on what matters most, impact will often start with simple successes that eventually cumulate to ever-larger achievements.

Share: How will my ideas influence others?

Impact increases when personal ideas become others’ insights. Earlier in my career, I took offense when others reported my ideas as their own. In one case, I blind reviewed a paper submitted to a journal in which the author merely replicated my and my colleagues’ ideas. I sent a “cease and desist” letter to the editor. Today, I might moderate my approach. While referencing and acknowledging others’ work shows professional respect, when others assimilate ideas as their own, the ideas have more impact. When the idea is the goal, credit matters; when impact is the goal, diffusion matters. In organizations, endorsed plagiarism means ideas are encouraged to, and do, cross boundaries of time and space. Over time, senior leaders will likely discern whose ideas have the most impact without having to self promote.

In addition, when leaders publicly commit to change, they are more likely to change and influence others through that change. Because others begin to expect leaders to think or act in a certain way, the idea behind the behavior expectation has more impact. We encourage leaders to post their 360 results and personal action plans so that others will support their desired changes and come to expect it of them.

Institutionalize: How can isolated events become patterns?

Any leader experiences hundreds of seemingly isolated events in the course of work: asking and answering questions, interacting with others, attending meetings, making decisions, responding to emails, and reading this blog (ahem). Isolated events need to turn into consistent patterns for real impact. In a recent training course, we asked participants to list the ideas that were nuggets of insight. Each isolated insight was helpful, but when we put them together into an overall framework for learning, the impact increased dramatically. Any one stop on a trip might create a memory, but the overall impact of the trip is likely to be increased by the combination of all of the individual visits.

To turn events into patterns, leaders need to see the connection between events then figure out how to replicate or institutionalize those patterns. Patterns, or routines, are often replicated when they become the foundation of HR processes: staffing and promotion (putting the right people in the right jobs), rewarding (incenting behaviors), communicating (sharing the right information), and organizing work (creating governance systems). Leaders have more impact when events translate into patterns.

Sustain: How can ideas endure over time?

Sustaining behaviors from good ideas is not easy. In our work, we identified seven disciplines of sustainability where individuals could make sure their ideas effect enduring desired changes:

  • Simplicity: identify one or two priorities.
  • Time: make sure the change shows up in your calendar.
  • Accountability: take personal ownership for the change.
  • Resources: support the change with trigger events and coaching.
  • Track: measure results and monitor progress.
  • Meliorate: learn and improve.
  • Emotion: bring personal passion to the change,

We encourage leaders to make this (STARTME) menu an integral part of training, appraisal, coaching, or personal improvement ideas. When two to four items from this sustainability menu are applied to their improvement ideas, leaders have more impact.

As thought leaders have ideas, we hope thought partners have ideas with impact.

Alongside my colleagues at The RBL Group, we help leaders align their company's brand identity with leadership brand, employer brand, and a high performing culture. To learn about our Leadership Development programs and events worldwide, click here.

Dave has published over 30 books on leadership, organization, and human resources. These ideas have shaped how people and organizations deliver value to customers, investors, and communities. He has consulted and done research with over half of the Fortune 200 and worked in over 80 countries.  He has received numerous public recognitions and lifetime awards for his work. 

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