Lessen your own ego at work

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Feels like it might be an important topic to determine something like this question: “How do you generate better ideas?” Ideas kinda drive everything, right? Theoretically any single thing, from a human being to an app, began as an idea somewhere. Stands to reason that understanding how to get better ideas would be helpful, either in a “making money” context or a “better society” context.

So how do we get better ideas?

Well look, a lot of times that stuff ain’t happening in a standard corporation. Work isn’t actually set up to drive innovation. Maybe at some levels, yes — but by and large work is about an idea (or series of ideas) then being executed on at various levels. Work usually becomes a train wreck because the necessary job roles to repeatably scale the business are often unclear. This creates a lot of priority issues. So rather than getting better ideas, mostly you just get people running in circles on supposedly urgent projects all week. That burns people out and they leave, hoping against hope it will be better at the next place. Here’s a hint: it probably won’t.

So yes, while most companies love to discuss innovation, many of them aren’t actually doing it. It’s much more about checking boxes and hitting process targets than anything remotely related to “let’s find some better ideas.”

Choice overload plays in here — companies love to create new revenue possibilities with no real plan — as does Shiny Object Syndrome.

So with all these impediments to better ideas, can we find a pathway to actually hit a few?

Marc Andreessen makes a bunch of money. What’s his take on better ideas?

Glad you asked, because he just spoke to Stanford University and here’s what we got:

Why do we make those mistakes of omission so often? “It’s almost always because we have some theory for why something’s not going to work,” Andreessen says. “You develop an idea, and then you look for all the evidence that supports it and ignore all the evidence that disproves it. You get locked into your ideas.” That mindset works against you, Andreessen warns, because what didn’t work in the past might work now. “Just because MySpace didn’t reach Facebook levels of scale didn’t mean Facebook wouldn’t be able to. So you have to be ruthlessly open-minded and constantly willing to reexamine your assumptions,” Andreessen says. “You have to take the ego out of ideas, which is a very hard thing to do.”

End of that quote is the money shot.

The role of ego in idea generation

Most standard work contexts are about two things: (1) is showing how relevant you are and (2) is trying not to look incompetent. This is how we arrive at the whole “busy vs. productive” issue. People want to be seen as busy because that underscores both relevance and competence. In a post-Industrial workplace, “productive” is often subjective because assets are creative or knowledge-based. Who’s got time to deal with that? I want work to validate my self-worth and stroke my ego.

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And that’s what is fatal to better ideas, ultimately. Maybe the issue is hierarchy — Dave makes more money than Paul, so Dave’s ideas have to win out, even if Paul’s are the better ideas. (That situation happens roughly 10.3M times per second at companies all over the world.) Or maybe too much bureaucracy (a real issue) is choking the pipeline of better ideas. Here’s another one: maybe managers, who are often tasked with vetting ideas, just can’t judge ideas that well. Oh, and finally: ideas usually come from thinking, right? Well, not a lot of thinking happens in companies. They’re more about execution (or supposed execution).

So how do we get better ideas?

Well yea, take ego out of the idea generation process. Easier said than done, although a rich guy did mention it, so that’s cool.

I had this job once where they tried to create a better idea process, OK? So basically the CFO and some VP create this template that we have to fill out regarding any new ideas we want to propose. Basically what’s happening here is this: we’re taking a concept like “idea generation” — smart, thinking, etc. — and drowning it in process. Tier II of issue: there was no clarity on what happened to these “better ideas” forms once they were submitted. No one knew who was reviewing them. If you asked, you were told other stuff was more urgent. Basically the whole system was a way to get people down the chain to think they were involved in new ideas, but in reality the executives choked the process and didn’t give a shit.

Sadly, this is all too common.

So to get better ideas, we’d need a new pipeline. Not every company can afford an “Ideation Lab” or whatever, so you basically just need to identify smart, capable front-line managers who can vet an idea and work with someone on its development. You can then move those managers away from the “putting out fires” roles they would normally be in. That’s optimization of people, but this is sadly uncommon. Again: the focus is usually execution, i.e. “This needs to get done now.” It’s usually not “Hey, we need some better ideas.”

The other key ego piece

Executives at companies need to understand that breakthroughs can come from any level. Too often, those types of people think “The big stuff can only happen at my perch.” That’s not true. Unfortunately, though, because it’s accepted as true, most companies withhold information down the chain. So now, if some low-level guy in Operations has a $2B revenue stream idea, he doesn’t even know where to begin — because he lacks the information and context, and no one is going to give it to him.

Yes, then — there is a tie between processes and ideas. If you want better ideas, you need better processes for getting to those ideas. (You also need a basic understanding of human psychology.)

What else you got on the generation of better ideas?

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