Researching the world of ideas and creativity for my new book THE VERY IDEA! has been a fascinating experience. I think we’ve all worked out that only a small minority of people in business are what you would call natural and consistent idea generators. My goal in writing the book is to encourage far more executives and managers to liberate their inner creativity, rather than fall back on the brief / feedback / micro-manage / approve routine. I have really enjoyed interviewing the planners, creatives and inventors who come up with the great ideas that drive change and progress. There are some brilliant tips to pass on, and I have every confidence that many of my readers will rise to the challenge and become consistent and prolific ideas people.
There is a ‘but’ however. Not all ideas – even ideas that we think are big ideas – are good and valuable. The same mental process – making connections between what we know already and what we have recently learned from looking at a problem or brief – that triggers powerful, game-changing ideas, can also produce bad and dangerous ideas. That’s why we need the filters and litmus tests that colleagues provide to scotch potentially disastrous flights of fancy. It is no good my egging on everyone to dream up more and more ideas if we have no mechanism for spotting the dangers of a rogue when we still have time to abort and go back to the drawing board.
A popular myth is that there is safety in numbers, in terms of making sure that contentious ideas are exposed to a lot of people to make sure that they won’t lead to disaster.
How different the world would be if that were true!
How much less hazardous life would be if the democratic process (you know elections, referendums and so on) saved us from truly awe-inspiring mistakes like Brexit, Trump or a hung parliament with the balance held by the DUP. There are obviously a myriad examples of one-off bad ideas. But what intrigues me is the bad idea that just gets worse as it plays out and triggers ever worse consequences and side effects.
Take Brexit for instance. The Referendum simply asked voters to decide whether to leave the European Union or remain within it. “Brexit” had a ring to it (more than “Leave”) and the behaviouralists tell us that positive action is instinctively more motivating than just carrying on doing the same old thing. 51.9% voted for Brexit. It’s probably fair to say that the vast majority did not understand what the Brexit idea meant (other than a vague Rule Britannia feeling), or what the short and long term consequences were likely to be. Suffice it to say that no divorce in history was ever so protracted, complicated or expensive. And worse still, Britain doesn’t even have someone else to sleep with.
Ideas are like jokes and gifts. The joke teller and the present giver are the last people to decide whether the joke is funny or the gift hits the spot. Only the recipient can do that. We have all worked out that idea generators are full of ideas. The first one off the production line is pretty unlikely to be the best we can do. We need a reasonable level of choice, and the time to look at pros and cons. Assessing reward and risk are essential to good decision making. Nearly all the politicians campaigning before the Referendum wanted the good bits of Europe without the bits that hacked us all off. The Referendum campaigns on both sides were badly planned and run, with no indication that a vote for Leave would turn into a bungee jump without the bungee.
So why do we allow ourselves to fall for politicians with daft ideas? Is it ignorance, or apathy? Is it the feeling we can’t make a difference? Or as in the case of the EU referendum or the US Presidential Election, is it simply that a choice between just two unattractive options is not really a valid choice at all – unless at least one of the ideas is well articulated?
Both being directly critical and sitting on the fence have a bad name. We are always being urged to make a positive choice – this idea, this candidate. But the next time you are asked to vote for an idea or a person that smells wrong now and could smell a lot worse down the line, tell it as it is, and stay on the fence (eg vote Remain) till something better comes along!
By David Wethey.