Why ‘good ideas’ are overrated in business

Many companies have been blinded by the thinking that there is no such thing as a bad idea, but here’s why that’s a fallacy.

We’ve all had a fair few ideas. Some were bad, many average, but your very best ideas only stand out to you because they passed an arbitrary yardstick in your own judgment, says Aurecon’s Peter Greaves.

While we do live in a time that demands great thinking, it seems that we’ve created an oversupply of ‘good ideas’ so that nobody actually knows what a good idea looks like anymore.

Many companies have been blinded by the thinking that there is no such thing as a bad idea, but Greaves begs to differ.

“It’s hard to break this to you, but perhaps your ‘good ideas’ aren’t very good at all,” he says.

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 pretty obvious to onlookers 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,” Greaves explains.

In the same way, the modern corporate world has 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?

So how did we get here? Greaves believes it’s tbe other side of a very positive coin. Recent rapid, radical workplace change that includes an increase in mutual respect for people of all ages, genders and roles, and mass digitisation have marked a lot of progress in the corporate world but along with it comes 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,” he says.

According to a Harvard Business Review article, “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, says Greaves.

“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,” he adds. “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.”

The boardroom is not a place where you can hand out a consolation trophy for ‘good ideas’.

“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, says Greaves. “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.

“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’,” says Greaves.

“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’.”

Over time, we’ve gradually devalued ideas because of their sheer volume, availability and ubiquity.

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,” says Greaves.

“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.”

According to Greaves, it is this critical thinking and willingness to go against the grain that will win out over a parade of ‘good ideas’.

“As the bad ‘good ideas’ get devalued, our stock will undoubtedly rise,” he explains. “So, in your considered opinion, what do you think: is this a ‘good idea’ or a good idea?”

Read more from Peter Greaves on Aurecon’s Just Imagine blog. 

Praseeda Nair

Kellen Rempel

Praseeda was Editor for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2016 to 2018.

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