Ideas are Cheap

In How Things Work by Mark Douglass

We hired a wiz-bang visual-effects animator two months ago. He’s been a massive addition to our team’s capabilities and the group dynamics in the shop. Justin has helped us elevate our game, and we’re glad he’s around!

Why start this post with our new guy, Justin?

Good question.

One of the first things Justin commented on at the close of his first week was how many ideas are swirling around the shop at any given moment — nevermind the array of projects moving through a multitude of phases — it was the ideas that bounce around off the table and rafters that caught his attention. He said there were times when he felt dizzy as he tried to scratch a few notes down on paper – to tackle the words and confine them to the notebook.

Tim offered his usual, toss away line: Yeah, ideas are cheap. We throw away good ideas every day.

That remark seemed to catch Justin off guard – as if he were thinking, ‘now, why would you ever do that?!’

I jumped in to explain. First, I assured Justin that Tim wasn’t being cocky or convince him that we are geniuses solving problems nobody can crack. That isn’t true at all. Secondly, I emphasized to the team that they can have 15 good ideas a day that never really get developed.

That is PERFECTLY okay. One pretty good idea a week that can move from a thought into actual existence is worth so much. We must keep generating ideas – always generate ideas until someone else points and exclaims -YES!

We operate the shop off of three deeply held beliefs — and I will keep saying them until they sink in!

1 – Ideas are both the most valuable and least valuable things we develop every day.

A great idea has zero value until it is actuated into existence (put to work) with real execution. The truth is, a brilliant idea poorly executed is worthless. AND YET — a great idea can be worth millions (or perhaps billions) of dollars if it is executed well and deployed effectively. Just examine any Silicon Valley success story or listen to the HOW I BUILT THIS podcast. The takeaway: we should never be enamored with our own ideas because we know the distance between the concept and significant financial gain is long and complicated and rigorous. Did I mention exhausting? I should have said ‘exhausting.’

2 – The best idea is the one we can develop and deploy.

It doesn’t matter how brilliant a concept might be if a) the client would never go for it b) it has no viable path to delivery for any number of reasons or c) we can’t devote the resources (payroll/hours) to develop it to its fullest. Half-baked brilliance is just sticky ooze ready for the closest rubbish bin.

3 – The value of the idea is also contingent on the right time/place/ budget.

Some ideas might only work in specific markets at specific times. Some ideas are too early – once, just for fun, we came up with a SLICK concept for marketing AARP to millennials! You can believe we will be ready to pitch it in 20 years – we have a couple of decades to let it age (bad joke?!)

In conclusion, we must continually cook ideas and toss them out onto the table. You never know what will work. One person may have the concept really tight, but lacks the ability to move it through development — but that’s precisely the moment another person sees how the idea can move to the next stage. If we all get used to seeing ideas form only to watch them get swatted away, we increase the likelihood of finding something truly great, a precious concept. We can’t get attached to any of them lest they die at the extremes of our creative abilities.

Most of my own ideas have flourished when entrusted to other capable minds who develop them way past my vision horizon. The realization that we can pass an idea around should make us thankful and somehow more humble — that we get to do imaginative work, that every so often our burgeoning ideas are birthed into the light of day, that they grow up into full development to accomplish impressive feats.

To that end, I’ll show off a couple of design concepts that didn’t make it all the way through to market. Some of them I loved, some I hated, some of them the team made the call – sometimes the client simply shrugs and says, ‘I’m not feeling it.’ Those great ideas have a sudden value of ZERO.

And so it goes. It’s a good thing that ideas are so cheap!

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