I had a wonderful opportunity to be shadowed by Anthony who was in a leadership development program from another agency. He and I talked a lot about innovation and the whole notion of how to get good ideas. At the end of the conversation he said he got the feeling that I didn’t think any idea was stupid. After I thought about it I agreed. I told him that I think there really are no stupid ideas, just stupid people.
Before I continue too far, I have to say that I hate using the word stupid – it’s judgmental and arrogant. I try to limit myself to only one “stupid” per day. And I find as I get older and learn more, I know less. So, the whole notion of “stupid” is pretty … well… stupid sometimes. Nevertheless, this word seemed appropriate in the context of the world of innovation and creative thinking.
Sometimes ideas that sound stupid turn out to be examples of the kind of out of the box thinking that produces amazing results. I read a pretty interesting article on several ideas that seemed stupid, but ended up making millions of dollars. Examples of this are: doggie goggles, antenna balls, and personalized letters to Santa.
Sometimes ideas that initially seem to be stupid failures end up being learning opportunities that ultimately yield to amazing results. Thomas Edison had many failed ideas before he was able to learn through trial and error what was needed to invent the light bulb, the phonograph, and the motion picture camera. As George Santayana is often quoted, “Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Stupid people are not those who lack education or intellect. Very intelligent people can be stupid. Similarly, people with low intellect or education can come up with ideas that produce great results. But most stupid people have some characteristics in common as it relates to ideas.
They don’t seek diversity. Often stupid people will ask other stupid people if their idea is a good idea. In other words, they seek advice from people who are just like themselves or in their own inner circle. They also only look for opinions that confirm what they want to hear.
They don’t care about results. Whether it’s from being delusional, experiencing cognitive dissonance, or being overly righteous or arrogant, stupid people just want to defend their original ideas without listening to advise that could produce desired results.
They don’t learn from mistakes. Personal righteousness and arrogance can prevent stupid people from learning and allow them to stumble into this ditch. In addition, very successful people can be stupid because they have so much experience in creating good results from their former good ideas. They don’t get into the disciplined habit of learning from mistakes because they simply have not made a lot of mistakes. They are haunted by the enemy of past successes.
If an idea fails, that doesn’t make it a bad idea. Likewise, if an idea is good idea, it can get botched through thoughtless implementation. So, after giving this more thought Anthony, I still think there is no such thing as a stupid idea.
Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA