I’ve had a strange week. I’ve spent a lot of it working around some network data so that I can analyse it. It’s for a consulting job, and the guy that collected it gave it to me in a state that was ….. not what I was looking for. So it’s been a bit of a frustrating week. On the other hand, nearly every data analysis exercise that I’ve gone through has had some drama attached to it. The simple fact of the matter is that it takes a fair bit of work to go from raw data, which is messy, to network diagrams like the one above, which also include lots of stats. Once I’ve got a picture and stats, then I can tell a story. It takes work to get to that point, but once I’ve told a story about the data, then I’ve executed an idea. The idea might be a hypothesis to be tested, a hunch about a firm, a cool new way to analyse something, or any number of things. One of the ideas that I keep stressing to everyone I talk to (students, research students, colleagues, industry partners, you, EVERYONE!) is that ideas are cheap.
There’s a nice post by Doug Neff on Nancy Duarte’s blog that gets at this idea from a different direction. He tells a story about doodling on the whiteboard to illustrate how the creative atmosphere at Duarte encourages a proliferation of ideas. And it reinforces an idea that I’ve had, which is that generating ideas is a process that accelerates exponentially. If I try to write one blog post a week, I struggle to come up with a good idea. If I try to write one post per day, I end up with 3 or 4 good ideas nearly every day. It’s weird, but that’s always the way it has worked for me.
But I think the reason for this is that it is actually executing ideas that leads to increased creativity. Every time I actually write a post, I’ve executed the idea. If I’m trying to store up ideas, they have less value. It’s harder to figure out exactly how to make the idea work, ideas run together, I become convinced that they’re crap, or I think they’re so great I freeze up and can’t figure out how to express them. This last one is a key point – I think we often end up vastly overvaluing ideas because of their enormous potential. But really, unexecuted ideas are nothing but trouble. The one advantage to unexecuted ideas is that you don’t have to go through the tedious work of sorting out data so that you can analyse it, you don’t have to go through the mental grief of writing – in short, you can dodge all the hard work.
You can’t really judge the value of an idea though, without putting in the work to test it, and to execute it. If we get too caught up in ideas, we overvalue them. We end up thinking that each idea is precious, and shouldn’t be wasted. From this perspective, we’re like albatrosses – who raise one chick every two years. I think we need to be more like salmon – rattling out ideas in volume (the obvious flaw in this metaphor is that salmon do that with their eggs, and then they die – so we don’t want to be exactly like salmon…). I think we should figure out ways to test out ideas quickly, so we can figure out which work and which don’t, and then nurture and grow the good ones. Humans are inherently problem-solving animals. Consequently, we don’t usually suffer from a shortage of ideas. We need to focus more on figuring out which ones are the good ones. We need to be salmon!
So I say go out and execute ideas. Do some work, try them out and figure out which ones are the good ones. But one way or another – execute! I guess I’m saying that the people at Duarte, in addition to continuing to write their excellent blog and to create great presentations, should go ahead and build their moat, complete with sharks (with laser beams attached to their frickin’ heads).