What has to be true for an idea to be successful?

Faith and Leadership
August 2015

By David Odom

How do you respond when you hear a new idea, something that has real promise but is not quite right? How do you both encourage the creative juices of the presenter and introduce concerns?

Business strategist Roger Martin has formulated what he considers the most powerful consulting question: “What has to be true for this idea to be successful?”

Martin’s question seems helpful regardless of your relationship to an idea. A boss can ask it as easily as can a peer, a subordinate or a consultant.

I recently witnessed the impact of this question as I was working with one of Martin’s colleagues to facilitate the design of a denomination’s funding model for its missions enterprise. The discussion included missionaries, governing board members and administrators. As we started testing ideas that emerged, the consultant asked Martin’s question: “What has to be true for this plan to work?”

The question opened up the conversation. Participants were able to examine their assumptions and consider what would be needed for any of the ideas to be successful. The group ultimately decided to conduct more research to understand the deep trends that are impacting its congregations and patterns of giving.

In his 2015 book “Team of Teams,” retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal argues that leaders in complex situations should think of themselves as gardeners who create the conditions for their colleagues and partners to address the challenges they face. McChrystal says this metaphor characterized how he had to learn to lead in the battle with al-Qaida. It required a completely new approach.

Martin’s consulting question takes on additional power in McChrystal’s metaphor. Leaders must understand the conditions to cultivate for an idea to become an effective plan. Cultivating conditions can be about securing resources, clearing obstacles and gaining support. Knowing what has to be true helps define the work ahead for everyone, not just the person with the idea.

Understanding conditions also helps set expectations. Many years ago, I was interviewed as a pastoral candidate for a congregation in western North Carolina. The pastor search committee made it clear that the congregation needed to reach young families. I was young, so surely I could attract people like me.

Since their hope sounded like that of every congregation I had ever known, I tried to understand the opportunity. I asked about the student body at the local elementary school. They responded that the school had shut down because there were not enough children to sustain it.


They did not see the connection between their hope and my question. What has to be true to reach young families? There have to be young families living in the community.

When an idea is new, it is often fragile. The person advocating for it often has a feeling that it will work, but the details are sketchy. Any critique can feel like a personal attack.

Martin’s question invites teams of people to come alongside the creator of an idea, figuring out together the conditions for its success. The assumption is that the idea can work. The focus of planning and action becomes, “What needs to be true for this idea to come alive?”

David L. Odom was the founding President of the Center for Congregational Health, and is now the Executive director, Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.