Check the Expiration Date

Bottle Of Milk

People have grown accustomed to checking the expiration date on things like meat or milk, to make sure they haven’t gone bad or soured. Far fewer people check the expiration date on their projects or new initiatives, however, these, too, can lose their freshness and impact if you wait too long to use them. What may have been a great idea at one point in time may become bland, or even leave a bad taste in someone’s mouth, if you wait too long to use it.

How does one check the expiration date on an idea or project?

  • How long have you talked about it? This isn’t an automatic rule-out. Sometimes you can be incubating an idea for a long time. One factor to consider is whether the idea has evolved and changed over time, or if you are still talking about it in general, nonspecific terms, retreading the same ground time and again. Which leads me to the second test of an expiration date . . .


  • Do you use the word “should” when describing the idea — as in “we really should be doing this.” Fresh ideas aren’t something you should do. Fresh ideas light up the room, they feel like something you have to do, not because someone is telling you to, but because you feel in your gut that the idea can in some way be a game changer that will help extend your mission reach.


  • Is everyone else already doing it? That doesn’t necessarily mean that you shouldn’t do it, but it’s a little bit like buying something that has been reduced for quick sale. The impact is likely to be far less that if you had implemented the idea when it was first available.


  • Has it “gone bad in the frig?” These are the ideas that you have said you want to pursue — you “bought” it — however, your process of getting to implementation takes so long that the expiration date may have passed, but people feel they have no choice but to continue on because so much work went into the preparation.

As the leader, it is your job to check the expiration date on ideas or projects. That can be harder than it sounds because perhaps you pushed for an idea at one point in time — you could clearly see the potential — but you now realize the window of opportunity has closed. The expiration date has passed. When that happens (and it will), you can watch wistfully as someone else enjoys the benefits of the once fresh idea, or you can focus your energy on looking forward and preparing to tackle the next new opportunity . . . before it expires.

Maybe the Plan is the Problem


I have been doing a lot of thinking of late about strategy and innovation, and how to use these tools to extend our organizations’s mission reach. Both concepts have been widely explored, and yet in some experts’ attempts to create step by step guides for how “do” strategy and innovation, the intuitive/explorative part of the journey gets lost in the quest to quantify.

I am a big believer in detailed plans … at the right place and time. I just don’t happen to believe strategy or innovation are the right place or time. As I mentioned in a previous post , our strategic framework (not plan, framework) fits on one page, and our most innovative efforts have taken us down paths we didn’t expect at the outset. If we had over planned in either of these areas, we would have set targets far short of what we actually accomplished.

You don’t have to take my word for it. In “The Big Lie of Strategic Planning” (Harvard Business Review, Jan/Feb 2014) author Roger L. Martin outlines why over planning is terrible for strategy. He contends that plans are how organizations cope with fear, but fear and discomfort are an essential part of strategy (whew, that’s good to know!). If fact, he says, if you are totally comfortable with your strategy, it probably isn’t very good.

Likewise, in terms of innovation, the authors in the newly released book Collective Genius note that innovative groups act their way forward rather than plan their way forward. You can’t move systematically toward a new concept, it is a journey of trial and error, gut instincts and new discoveries. How can you definitively plan for that?

While detailed plans for strategy and innovation may be counterproductive, you still need goals and parameters to keep everyone moving in the same direction. For example at the time we identified a strategic goal of extending our mission reach internationally, the intent — the what — was clear. However, if we had made a specific plan for “how”, we probably would have identified a single country to target, and called the plan a success if we met that target. Rather, by leaving the goal open-ended, and intuitively pursuing a variety of paths that presented themselves, we have trained professionals from five continents.

Our philosophy around innovation is that the specifics are going to change along the way anyway, so we start with concepts and prototypes rather than a comprehensive plan, and tweak it all along the way as we learn what works and what doesn’t. Patient persistence, rather than a perfect plan, is what has led to our most impactful innovations.

Strategy and innovation are never sure bets, there is always risk involved. A detailed plan, in effect, means you are choosing a single path and ruling out other variables and options — in many regards actually increasing your risk of missing the mark. As Martin notes, the goal of strategy (and I would add, innovation) is not to eliminate risk, but to increase the odds of success.

Not getting the success you hoped for in your strategy or innovation efforts? Maybe the problem is in your plan.