The problem with good ideas

Peter  Greaves Peter Greaves
Buildings of the Future Leader
5 December 2017
8 min read

Ideas. We’ve all had a fair few of them. Some were bad, many average, but your very best ideas, using our trusted bell curve to define them, were definitely the good ones. You might have even been told, perhaps on more than one occasion, that your ‘good ideas’ are better than other people’s ‘good ideas’. If this were the case, there would be plenty of evidence of our ‘good ideas’ being turned into finite creations for the rest of the world to admire. But how often does this actually happen? It’s hard to break this to you, but perhaps your ‘good ideas’ aren’t very good at all…

Have you ever watched young children play sport? Everyone on the team gets a trophy at the end of the season, even though, it’s patently obvious to anyone who watches them play that some players are far better than others. It’s easy to see why we would want to keep on encouraging the weaker players to keep on playing sport at this youth level, but once we move up a few leagues into the professional ranks of work it becomes less obvious to see why we would want to reward people for anything less than their best ideas.

In the same way, the modern corporate world of late has, perhaps unintentionally, created a bad ‘good ideas’ factory, where ideas take seconds to think of, can be authored by anyone and don’t even need to be any good. As long as everyone in the brainstorming room has an idea on the wall, the job’s done and we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief and go home.

There’s no such thing as a bad idea… or is there?

Brainstorming sessionWe do live in a time that demands great thinking but it seems we’ve created an oversupply of ‘good ideas’. This has happened through recent, rapid, radical workplace change that includes an increase in mutual respect for people of all ages, genders and roles, mass digitisation and a fear of making the wrong decision.

Unfortunately, a by-product of this might be that nobody actually knows what a ‘good idea’ looks like anymore.

As a Harvard Business Review article says, “It’s not an idea problem; it’s a recognition problem.” In a time when the demand and pressure for innovation is as high as ever, businesses and organisations are afraid to live in uncertainty and have rejected any idea that doesn’t guarantee a success. They have traded creativity for something safe; something they believe is a sure winner. But here’s a news flash: there is no such thing as a sure winner.

Sports organisations, teams, athletes, and coaches especially, know this to be true. Even when teams have talented and well-trained athletes, all great coaches know that they cannot simply just throw their players into the field and expect them to be champions. They can learn the rules and fundamentals of the game, but no rule or playbook ever gave them the ‘sure way’ to lead a team, let alone a guaranteed strategy to become a champion.

In fact, even some of the greatest coaches have varying and contradicting methods in coaching ‒ from encouragement, discipline, to brutal confrontations.

“You have to tell them the truth about their performance, you have to tell it to them face-to-face, and you have to tell it to them over and over again. Sometimes, the truth will be painful and, sometimes, saying it will lead to an uncomfortable confrontation. So be it. The only way to change people is to tell them in the clearest possible terms what they’re doing wrong. And if they don’t want to listen, they don’t belong on the team,” said former American football coach Bill Parcells.

While not all may agree with Parcells’ approach, this may very well be applied in boardroom pitches and discussions, a place where you cannot hand out a consolation trophy for ‘good ideas’. Many companies have been blinded by the thinking that there is no such thing as a bad idea, that’s why they never debate them. But, shouldn’t they?

Ideas with great potential cannot fly high if no one will put it up for a fight.

Elon Musk is a walking billboard of this philosophy; it is part of his marketing campaign. He puts his ideas out there and lets people argue with him about it, giving everyone with a smart gadget and internet the chance to question him and point out his flaws. But make no mistake; this doesn’t make his ideas weak.

In fact, it makes them even stronger: The more people debate an idea, the more it becomes clearer if it is a good one or not.

Just as Parcells suggests, you have to be brutally honest and ruthless when challenging a potentially good idea, instead of always agreeing and nodding to it, with ample benefit of the doubt, think “what if?” Raise it, debate it, and improve it; but if an idea loses and fails to make its case, know when to give up and let it go.

Why quantity is crushing quality

When it comes to generating ‘good ideas’, the quantity versus quality debate is never far away. Historically, ‘quality’ had the upper hand: we saw Vladimir Nabokov trying to destroy his imperfect final manuscript on his deathbed; Harper Lee never bettering To Kill a Mockingbird, and Terrence Malick taking a 20-year ‘career break’ after directing ‘Badlands’ and ‘Days of Heaven’.

For these ingenious ideas people, they’d prefer nothing less than their perfect creations to be made public. Today, we live in the age of ‘quantity’, where people can post their many ideas on multiple digital platforms, hoping to gain an arbitrary number of likes, comments and shares that make them feel as though they’ve created something ‘good’.

In 2017, we think of an idea as a ‘formulated thought or opinion’ but, not so long ago, it was considered to be ‘a visible representation of a conception’. Over time, we’ve gradually devalued ideas because of their sheer volume, availability and ubiquity. Up until the end of the 20th century, the omnipotence of the internet and wholesale digitisation were unimaginable, but then things changed rapidly and people like us were empowered by our tools, and encouraged by our peers, to put our ideas online. Even if they weren’t very good.

At the start of this century, a few media friends put their heads together and came up with the very good idea of ‘Idea a Day’. The simple, but counter-intuitive, premise was that each day they’d give away their own or other people’s ideas for free.

One of the founders, Chas Bayfield, came from an advertising background where, up until this point, ‘good ideas’ were valued at a premium. Chas and his chums took advantage of the fact that people were happy enough to give away their potentially lucrative ideas so long as they got to see their name printed next to the idea. The value in their idea had been reduced to a byline on a blog they knew would never make them any money, but gave them something they craved: their Warholian 15-minutes of fame.

Previously, these people couldn’t get noticed for having ‘good ideas’ but, by using the democratising power of the internet they could.

Be more professional

Through digital technologies, the democratisation of information has led to the democratisation of knowledge, which in turn has led to the democratisation of ‘good ideas’. Professionals with relevant degrees, pertinent experience and the titles to match are no longer the only people who can express an opinion and have ‘good ideas’ in the subject being discussed around the table.

As Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia, says about the democratisation of knowledge: “Professionals are no longer needed for the bare purpose of the mass distribution of information and the shaping of opinion.”

In the engineering industry, now’s the time for a bold, forward-thinking company to stand up and challenge the new, established way of accepting everyone’s ideas as equally valid. As we imagine our buildings, cities and countries of the future, let’s use our hard-earned knowledge not to weakly find something ‘good’ about an idea, but to be strong and really question what’s wrong with it.

These new levels of transparency and authenticity would positively shift the dynamic of the relationships we have with our clients to one that’s better for everyone involved in the process. Our role as a professional services consultant in the future would be to tell a client if their idea is not very good. We’d become less about implementing any old idea and instead become the trusted advisor who would take a client’s idea and pressure test it, challenge it, critique it and, hopefully, improve it prior to implementation.

And if, during this process, we find that their ‘good idea’ is a bad idea, we should have the courage to say ‘no’ to our clients and not make it.

We have the chance to reframe our profession and make it far more professional. As the bad ‘good ideas’ get devalued, our stock will undoubtedly rise. So, in your considered opinion, what do you think: is this a ‘good idea’ or a good idea?

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Peter  Greaves
Written by
Peter Greaves

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