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3 Ways to Master the Art of Collecting Great Ideas and Making Them for You

A poet once lamented that his best ideas came to him while he stood over the sink shaving his face and then were washed down the drain with his whiskers before he could write them down. That was not the case with Mike Lange, who was somewhat poetic in his own unique way during more than 40 years as the play-by-play announcer for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Early in his career, Lange learned a secret to broadcasting that also applies to leadership excellence: Write down ideas when they come to you, store them safely, and put the best ones to use.

For Lange, the storage unit was a shoebox and the ideas were one-liners given to him by fans of the team so that he could use them during games. A player would score a dramatic goal, for instance, and a joyful Lange would yell something off the wall like, “Ohhh, he beat him like a rented mule!”

Such catchphrases became Lange’s trademark. At first, he got them simply by listening to the interesting things people said to each other when he was out and about in Pittsburgh. Soon, however, fans began offering suggestions. And when Pittsburgh won its second Stanley Cup in 1992, things really went crazy in my hockey-crazed hometown.

“All of a sudden, everybody started coming up to me with suggestions for catchphrases — grandmothers, security guards, bookies, everyone,” Lange wrote in a recent essay about his career. “Pittsburgh is a town of characters, and everybody knew somebody who would just say the craziest things. In almost every conversation I had with fans back then, someone at some point would say, ‘You gotta hear this one, Mike!’”

Each summer, Lange went through the suggestions in his shoebox and picked out the ones worth using. Turns out he was crowdsourcing long before anyone began using that term.

As a leader, it’s worth asking yourself, “What’s in my shoebox?” And if it’s empty or low on innovative ideas, what are you going to do about it? Here are three ways to fill it up and keep it full.

Practice edge-of-your-seat listening.

Lange had a passion for learning from feedback, and he appreciated that earnestness in others like Jaromir Jagr, a bright player from Czechoslovakia who “was a master of watching people, listening, and learning from what he saw.” It was this type of edge-of-your-seat listening that kept Lange connected with fans. “I kept my ears open,” he said, “and I kept absorbing these sayings.”

Arrogant leaders tune out the world around them because they think they already have the answers. And if they don’t have the answers, they believe they are the most qualified to go find the answers. Other people? Their job is to execute the leader’s great ideas.

Transfluent leaders, on the other hand, are humble enough to recognize how little they know and they recognize that people around them — especially the ones closest to the problems — are the ones most likely to have the best solutions. So they see every interaction as an opportunity to learn something that might help them, their team, and their customers.

Lange no doubt heard dozens of lame sayings from well-meaning fans, but he respected them enough to listen with genuine curiosity and it paid off every time someone gave him something worth using, which was rather often.

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Record and retrieve.

While Lange required fans to write down their catchphrases, I think leaders also would do well to carry a notebook with them or use a notes app in their smartphone so they can write down ideas as they come (Sam Walton famously used a yellow legal pad). Once you have them written down, put them in your metaphorical shoebox — maybe type them all up in a Word document, for instance — and then have a plan for reviewing them and refining them.

Lange pulled out his catchphrase shoebox during the off-season, and he found inspiration in the ideas of others. As a leader, you might review ideas once a month or once a quarter, both on your own and with your leadership team. Some ideas won’t work at all. Some won’t work without some tweaking. Others are great, but the timing is wrong, so regular reviews will keep them around to use when circumstances change. And some are worth trying as soon as possible.

Put great ideas to work for you.

One reason so many fans gave Lange ideas for new catchphrases is because they knew he would use the best ones during games. Leaders who collect ideas and never use them soon will find that nobody seems to have any ideas they’d like to share. I didn’t say they had no ideas. They just see sharing them as a waste of time.

There’s nothing worse than a dormant suggestion box — virtual or otherwise. When leaders ask for feedback, they need to remember that the process is a loop, not a straight line from A to B that dead-ends with the receiver. You need to either pilot the idea and acknowledge the contributor or share that you’re regularly vetting concepts and encourage submitters to keep trying.

If ideas are sent anonymously, you can still recognize that an idea came from one of your employees and make your gratitude known — especially if you use it. When Lange continued to share catchphrases, fans got that rush of being part of the loop, which only fed their imaginations to submit more. As leaders, we can provide that same rush by letting our employees know their ideas are encouraged and valued. Keep the pipeline full by giving attention to the effort that went into the suggestion.

And it’s not enough to use the ideas, by the way. You also need to share the credit so the people know that you aren’t the type to take credit for someone else’s work and so they know ideas are taken seriously by their leaders.

Feedback multiplies, unites, and motivates when you don’t let it gather dust — or when you don’t let it slip down a drain. If you are intentional about getting it, exploring it, using it, and honoring those who gave it to you, however, you will beat your competition like a rented mule! Metaphorically speaking, of course.

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