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.

Did That Employee Motivation Plan Come in a Can?

Everyone wants to feel motivated at work, and managers know that motivated people produce better results. So it’s not surprising that the literature on motivating employees is vast. But it’s hard not to feel depleted when you sense that “motivating the team” is a line item on your manager’s agenda, a means to an end, a notch in your boss’s belt.

Articles and books about motivating employees don’t put it that way, of course. The tone is usually energetic, even inspirational, and certainly practical. Confronted with low morale, managers who read the literature looking for tips and solutions have learned to wheel out the team-building efforts, listen more actively, increase positive feedback, and use an array of other no-brainer tactics to make people feel valued at work. On the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with that. The end goal is a worthwhile one.

But most employees know when they’re being tinkered with, when attempts to motivate them are coming from a calculated place, when there’s simply too much deliberate effort in the endeavor, well-intended as that effort may be. People, especially the talented ones, recognize the prefab packaging of an off-the-shelf purchase. Sometimes you even see it lying around, like when I noticed a dog-eared magazine article about employee motivation on a manager’s desk, only to find myself a participant in the article’s recommended team exercise two weeks later. Sure, the effort was better than apathy and inaction, but I felt pity for that manager, and that’s pretty much a downer.

I have never conducted rigorous research on employee motivation, as many who write about it claim to have done. But one thing I know is that data-hungry managers seeking valid, usable evidence of best practices will eventually see, if they’re honest with themselves, that they’re on a wild goose chase. Even the rare manager with enough research savvy to analyze the data astutely will find that the very act of casting about for solutions and trying to apply them in a troubled situation looks pathetic at best — and cynical at worst — to the people he wants to motivate. That perception is inherently depleting, not motivating.

What to do then if you’re a manager with an unmotivated team? Give up? Well, maybe so, if you find yourself routinely in need of imported tools and prefab crutches as you try to motivate people. But the problem might instead be that you’re looking around for answers instead of looking within. People get most excited when motivation is incidental to the task at hand, not an end in itself. Motivation endures when you learn from someone who is enthusiastic about the intrinsic value of the work, is fascinated by how colleagues and subordinates think, is able to articulate her keen observations, and is just plain good at what she does. I’ve seen that happen time and again in both the workplace and the classroom. Never have I witnessed anyone respond in a genuine way to a canned motivational plan.

Motivation, like laughter, is casually infectious. It blindsides you when you least expect it. Administering it via syringe doesn’t work, precisely because people see the needle coming.

Sure, some managers get deft with needles and seem to obtain results despite their inorganic approach. All sorts of little tricks are out there to help you in that effort. But tool kits and bags of tricks make me feel numb. And you’d be surprised how many people would admit that if you weren’t the one assigning them grades or writing their performance reviews. “Yes, sir, thank you for giving me this motivation. Here it is on my desk. I love it. Very beautiful.”