The “Ideas Guy” Is a Gas Guzzler

If you work in a field that produces intellectual content, you’ve probably rubbed elbows with at least one “ideas guy.” That’s the person in your organization who, like a constantly humming machine, generates countless ideas for others to implement. He’s usually an extrovert—glib, quick on his feet, intoxicated by his own “genius” (if politically savvy, he tempers that with just the right amount of self-deprecation). Sometimes this guy’s the boss, sometimes not. He may be widely liked, or disliked, or something in between. And he’s not always a guy, although more men than women play the role.

If you’re really lucky, you’ve got a whole bunch of these types running around your institution, belching out one idea after another while the rank-and-file scramble to figure out how to turn clouds of smoke into concrete realities. A few of the ideas turn out to be wonderful; most don’t. But that’s supposedly okay. You see, the ideas guy—and those who enable him—believe that the way to find the perfect specimen is to let a thousand flowers bloom. In fact, at “ideas meetings” that very metaphor is often invoked to add fragrance to a room where freshly conceived possibilities waft liberally through the air.

For a long time, that way of operating was highly productive. Finding the best idea was the most essential step on the path to success. Efficiency was reserved for downstream efforts, undertaken well after the “big idea” had been found. Brainstorms were not only messy, as they must be, but also enormous. Large-scale cleanup was a small price to pay for the gem that emerged from the wreckage. The process was organic, or at least it seemed to be.

But perceptive front-line employees have always known that most of what you find on the landscape after a storm of ideas has blown through is hard-to-recycle rubble and debris, not expanses of sweet-smelling flowers. Working through bad ideas in order to find—and then to implement—the good ones takes huge amounts of time, energy, and resources. Still, if the alternative is to never generate a great idea, there’s no real choice, is there?

Not so. In an era when we’re rethinking the very notion of waste—in materials, time, and space—the American ideal of the “ideas guy” is a yesteryear behemoth in need of an overhaul. Nevertheless, organizations have become so top-heavy with these characters that instead of a field of a thousand flowering ideas, we’re often confronted with tons of trash so daunting that finding anything worth a darn becomes almost impossible. Like a big car that guzzles gas, the old-style ideas guy consumes too much energy and hogs most of the space that others need to actually keep things moving. In short, he takes so many vital resources away from implementation in the name of invention and innovation that the end product is, de facto, a rush job at best and a hazard at worst, even though it may come in a handsome package.

It’s a rarer, humbler breed of intellectual that we now need to cultivate and elevate. Let’s, for a change of personage, call her a woman—one who

  • acts as her own filter, not because she is inhibited, but because she has the judgment, restraint, and good sense to recognize that early, judicious winnowing allows you to execute good ideas effectively and, thereby, make them great.
  • is not afraid of messy beginnings but abhors unnecessary waste, and knows the perils of squandered time—both hers and that of others.
  • envisions the outlines (and even some of the details) of implementation almost from the moment she conceives an idea, because the art of execution is in her bones.
  • has foresight and knows that the most important aspect of revision is having the luxury of time to revise.
  • is deft with words, both oral and written, but is not intoxicated by her own or others’ awareness of that mastery.
  • appreciates the dangers of getting into the weeds—but knows that not all weeds are bad and, when needed, can kneel in the dirt amid those details without feeling sullied.
  • values intrinsic more than extrinsic rewards and fosters an appreciation of the former in everyone she leads—and everyone she follows, too.
  • aims for the best but recognizes that there are times when the best-case scenario is to prevent the worst—and isn’t afraid to be forthright about that cold, hard reality.
  • uses resources, both human and material, in ways that reenergize the people and the things she draws from, so that everyone can see and look forward to the long-term benefits ahead of time.

In short, the alternative to the ideas guy produces more than she consumes. She doesn’t suck up all the air in a room, only to start spewing smoke that others try desperately—and inefficiently—to capture. She is not a machine. Guzzling gas isn’t her thing.

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About Steven DeMaio
Steven DeMaio teaches English and math at the Community Learning Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences in Somerville, Massachusetts. He also works as a freelance editor and writer. This is a continuation of his blog that ran for 10 months in 2009 on HBR.org.

2 Responses to The “Ideas Guy” Is a Gas Guzzler

  1. Selima says:

    Not to mention that “ideas guys” tend to get overpaid, adding to the piles of waste they produce — namely, wasted money. I really like the way you cast this in environmental terms. It’s an apt metaphor.

  2. Alex P says:

    My own experience is the exact opposite. I am a design engineer who is in love with his work, and on several occasions have seen major opportunities that I have failed to get management to see and act on. I’m experienced enough to know that (a) the design has to work in the real world, be manufacturable, answer a real market need, (b) has to be developed to the point of being proof of concept, and (c) be done entirely not on “company” time.

    Example: I redesigned my employer’s core product to remove about 40% of the cost, while (slightly) improving its performance. My proof consisted of a full set of calculations, schematics, and a costed bill of materials based on similar parts that the company was already making. This design was an application of the same type of work I was doing daily for my employer.

    Amazingly, the response to a new ideas is anger. The negative responses to the effect of “this won’t work” were missing one key word: “because”. This has happened to me twice in my career. I suggest that our society’s inability to even consider new ideas, even if delivered in the form of proof from trusted employees who do this type of work for you daily, is a very serious problem.

    Our society is innovative; what about computers? Look it it up: the patent for the computer chip was filed in 1952, multitasking operating systems (Windows) are based on Unix, invented in the 1960’s, the world’s mot popular programming language, C, Was released in 1972, the graphical user interface at Xerox PARC in the mid 1970’s, and the Darpanet, precursor to the internet, dates from the 1960’s.

    We aren’t longer an innovative society. The alternative is commodification, where ideas sell for the cost of production, not the value of the problem they solve.

    Good luck with that.

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