At some point in the past, our own big idea sucked

It had been a little over a week since we pitched him on buying into the company. We showed him everything: our work, our books, our client list. That’s when I got the email from him wherein he didn’t merely say “no,” he said, “maybe your big idea sucks.”

I didn’t realize it immediately — I was too defensive to notice — but he helped me learn something important. It turns out, it’s always true. Not only might your big idea suck, but no one wants it rammed down their throat. I’m not being cynical or nihilistic. It’s just human nature.

I used to believe that when someone disagreed, it was because they had a different vision. I felt I could generally discern just what ideological prescription my detractor held by the nature of their criticism. But after I was told, “maybe your big idea sucks,” I finally understood that no one is certain, and most people are deeply uncertain. We aren’t moved by our nature to criticize because we already have profound domain knowledge and an alternative vision to what we’re attacking.

We criticize because, at some point in the past, our own big idea sucked.

Every one of us has had to learn something the hard way; generally, we all learn a lot of stuff that way. Most new ideas are criticized out of the gate because the critics learned something the hard way and their hard-earned knowledge will have its day! Even more frightful is the fact that this new idea doesn’t belong to me! My hard-earned knowledge didn’t even play a role in this new idea! It’s almost a law of nature. Every time a new idea is introduced to a group blindly, there will be members for whom the ineluctable desire to attack cannot be abated.

A wise person I know, Jeff Coburn, once told me he believes creative people have the potential to traverse three stages in their careers. He said he believed most don’t make it all the way to the third stage. He called those stages, “Fight and Lose,” “Fight and Win,” and “Win Without Fighting.”

“Fight and Lose” is easy enough to understand. You’ve got a vision. You push that vision. No one cares. This is common for young creative and visionary people. Everyone that has ever had an idea has been there.

“Fight and Win” is also easy to understand. You’ve got a vision. You push that vision. You’ve been involved in some winning projects before. People are intimidated by your success, confidence and vision. They get out of the way. It’s easy to assume this is a win. It’s not. The trouble with “Fight and Win” is that while people get out of your way, they feel disenfranchised. They will lie in wait. The first mistake you make will be the vector for those you’ve disenfranchised to bring you down. It doesn’t matter how good your vision might have been, because you essentially ignored the hard-earned knowledge of the people you’re claiming to help.

“Win Without Fighting” is not as easy to understand. You’ve got a vision. You immerse yourself in the culture into which you want to present that vision. You observe. You ask questions. I’m only able to articulate those components because my friend, Dave Gray, is writing a book about agility and explained to me that those are the first four of ten principles of agility: purpose, immersion, observation, interrogation. This approach brings those in the culture into which you want to present a vision into the process of creating that vision. Now people aren’t predisposed to attack, because their hard-earned knowledge has been enfranchised. Your vision may be significantly altered by this influence as well.

And yet, we still fight. We didn’t enfranchise our potential investor that day. We fired our ideas at him as if from a canon. He thought they sucked.

Everywhere, people with ideas continue to fight. From highly talented creative individuals to large professional services firms, ideas are introduced like a taekwondo board break, or punch to the gut. They tell us, “We know what’s wrong with your situation. We have the big idea that will solve it. Aren’t you all impressed?” Only then are we, the recipients of the idea, asked what we think.

I can tell you what we think. We think your big idea sucks.