Why A Good Idea is (Almost) Never Enough


Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate a good idea as much as the next person.

In fact, I think of my life as punctuated by a series of pivots triggered by powerful ideas:

  • The time before and after I learned how to appreciate my non-toothache rather than take the invisible good in my life for granted (the trigger: meeting Thich Nhat Hanh).

  • The time before and after I understood my life as situated at the intersection of biography and history (the trigger: reading this article by C. Wright Mills)

  • Or, the time before and after I appreciated the power of thinking in terms of ‘incidental movement’ and a ‘nutrition GPA’ rather than playing the health boom and bust thing (the triggers: listening to Brock Armstrong and Monica Reinagel’s podcasts).

The list goes and on and on.

No doubt: a good idea can be a powerful catalyst. As author Mark Dunn writes:

“Most of the lasting change that has been forged in the history of this world came not from a wielding of the swift and bloody sword of battle but from the shaping scalpel of ideas.”

And if you’re anything like me, you’re always on the prowl for an exciting new idea- be it in the form of words (think: articles, podcasts, Ted Talks, books) or a new product or service (think: iPod and internet banking). A new idea has the allure of a shiny, new Christmas present.

And yet, I have come to realize something important through working with people and organizations that want to make a change.

A good idea is (almost) never enough.

A good idea is a good start, but can only take you so far. And this, it seems to me, is an important point to keep in mind as we start a new year filled with resolutions for meaningful change.

A little detour into the history of automotive development will help me explain what I mean. The electric starter motor (pictured above) was invented around the turn of the 19th century. Before the electric starter came on the scene, most people started their cars using a hand crank (though there were other ways to start a car such as wind-up springs and gunpowder cylinders). The hand crank was far from optimal. It often made the driver dirty. It required considerable physical effort, and worst of all, it was dangerous.

And then the electric starter motor burst onto the scene. It solved all these problems. It made it possible to effortlessly start a car from the comfort and safety of the driver’s seat. A true innovation. However, according to historian Virginia Scharff’s fascinating book, it took years for automakers to adopt the electric starter motor. The significant delay between invention and implementation goes against our intuitive sense of technological development. There was a problem. Someone invented a technology that solved the problem cheaply and effectively. And yet, companies refused to use it; they continued to make cars with cranks for many years.

How could this be?

The problem was that at that time, people believed that cars were machines used by men. The electric starter engine, on the other hand, was considered to be a technology for women. Like the electric car, the electric starter was targeted towards the “weaker sex” that couldn’t handle the hand crank. Consequently, integrating the electric starter technology in regular cars, would, in the minds of car manufacturers, demasculinize the car and its driver. In the end, car manufacturers did adopt the electric starter motor. And men continued to buy cars. And the electric starter didn’t fundamentally transform notions of masculinity (unfortunately). But it took a lot longer than it should have.

Why am I telling you about the history of the electric starter engine? There’s a lesson here. In fact, there are multiple lessons to be learned.

The first lesson-- and this one warms my sociologist’s heart-- is that innovation and the adoption of an innovative technology do not happen in a vacuum (if you want a good joke on this theme click here). The specific historical, cultural, and social context within which technological change takes place is critical to the change process. In the case of the starter engine, cultural beliefs about masculinity and femininity inhibited manufacturers from adopting a technology that would serve their customers better and give their companies an edge over the competition.

Sure that’s interesting, but that’s not precisely applicable to those of us trying to become more effective, efficient and healthier in the new year. Or is it?

I propose that there is another, related lesson to be learned from the history of the electric starter motor: when it comes to personal development, it is rarely a lack of good ideas that holds us back. We’ve all got plenty of “starter motor” ideas up our sleeves. Most of us can recite a litany of principles, techniques, systems, and apps that should help us become happier, healthier, and more productive. But given how abundant good ideas are in the realm of personal development yet how few of us actually make any real changes, I suspect we’re focusing on the wrong thing.

Because as the history of the starter motor shows us, to change you need to think deeply and widely about the problem you're trying to solve and the broader context in which you’re trying to effect change.

How do you do this?

I’ve come up with a two-step process through my work coaching people and teams that want to make a change. And because I am an avid organic gardener in my free time, I like to use an agro-metaphor whenever I can, so please bear with me.

The first thing you need to do is to identify and uproot the weeds. In this case, the weeds are dysfunctional beliefs. Stanford Professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans coined the term ‘dysfunctional beliefs’ in their excellent book “Designing Your Life.” Burnett and Evans use the term to refer to beliefs that we’ve inherited through society that are neither true nor particularly helpful.

A historical example of a dysfunctional belief is that if you use an electric starter engine, you won’t be a real man. Clearly, this belief is a thing of the past. But there are many other dysfunctional beliefs lurking around pretty much every corner, including the personal development world.

And these dysfunctional beliefs limit our understanding of the problem and consequently constrain our ability to come up with new solutions.

In terms of making a change in your personal and professional life, here are the top two dysfunctional beliefs many of my clients have :

If I find that ready-made perfect app, method, book, idea, system, notebook, etc., I’ll stop feeling overwhelmed, and everything will fall into place.

Time management is enough. I just need to plan my week and then stick to the plan. That way, I’ll become a productivity machine.

These two dysfunctional beliefs are at the core of many of my clients’ struggles. 9 out of 10 times, the excellent app or color-coded time management program doesn’t actually translate into real progress. And unfortunately, most people react to this failure by blaming themselves and/or losing hope. Few stop and think systematically about WHY the fancy new gadget or program isn’t working in the first place. *

And this brings me to the second step in making a lasting change: the loosening of the soil. How do you loosen the soil? You loosen the soil by applying what designers call the “cycle of the iterative design process” to your life.

Instead of squeezing yourself into a standardized method or system, you start by taking the time to go through the cyclic process of prototyping, testing, analyzing, and refining a possible solution to a problem you're struggling with. So for instance, if bullet journal isn’t solving all of your problems, then think about what is actually going on and why you can’t seem to make any progress on that report/manuscript/illustration/health goal that you’ve identified as important.

And to do this, you need to take a few steps. First, take the time to figure out who you are right now (because this always changes), what you want (also, obviously, a moving target), your particular circumstances (again always in motion) and finally think systematically about your unique schedule and work process.

And based on this collection of data you analyze what’s working and where you need to make adjustments. You do what designers call prototyping or what entrepreneurs call build-measure-learn. Put simply, you try things out-- simple, inexpensive, easy to implement changes that allow you to collect more data on yourself. And when you inevitably don’t solve everything in one fell swoop, you don’t lose hope. Instead, you get curious, curious like a scientist without judgment. And then you refine your understanding of the problem, and you adjust your plan and try again.

You go through this over and over again until you find something that works (for now).To get back to my agricultural metaphor, you need to constantly till your soil. This keeps things loose and agile, and this way sets the conditions for a new idea to take root and grow into something substantial.

The beauty of taking this approach is that it’s dynamic (just like you and your circumstances are) and it’s individually-tailored to your needs. And it is precisely for this reason, that this approach works.

Sounds intriguing but you don't exactly know how to implement what I’m talking about? In my next article, I will outline a series of exercises that will help you apply the cycle of the iterative design process to your life.

So whatever you do, don’t get too hung up on finding the perfect new idea that will change everything in 2019. Instead, start identifying in what areas of your personal and professional life you’re still using the hand crank. And then be curious, try stuff, collect data and be kind to yourself. And maybe something new will take hold.

Wishing you a happy and healthy 2019!

*You may have other dysfunctional beliefs. Figuring them out is a crucial step before implementing any type of fix. And keep in mind that dysfunctional beliefs are unique to you. Just like in gardening, one person’s weed is another person’s delicacy (think purslane).