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Justin Novak

Quality Insider

Your Ideas Are a Little Bit Dumb, and So Are Mine

Why doesn’t that guy in the tinfoil hat understand how crazy he sounds?

Published: Tuesday, November 15, 2016 - 15:45

When the subject of inclusion comes up in management circles, I commonly hear platitudes like, “Everyone’s ideas are great.” Experience shows that such statements are patently false. Screen doors on a submarine—no redeeming qualities there; they just wouldn’t work out well. The problem with saying, “Everyone is great; everyone is special,” is that you are also saying, “Nothing is really great; nothing is really special.”

With this thought in mind, I’d like to propose a different sort of inclusion mantra: “Everyone’s ideas are a little bit dumb.”

I should clarify: I’m not talking about facts. Facts are concrete, stable, and generally not open to much serious discussion. Water is wet. Fire is hot. The SEC is, by far, the best conference in college football. These are all facts. OK, one is an opinion—fire is only subjectively hot when compared with its surroundings.

Ideas are different. They are bigger than facts. Ideas are vague and amorphous. They are things like “lasagna is better than spaghetti,” or “all life is sacred.” Ideas are simple statements that can have very complex implications. They are often, and should be, debated.

At the end of the day, we tend to have very few facts and a whole lot of ideas. We have thousands of the little critters scuttling around in our heads—ideas about everything from politics, to lean principles, to which way the toilet paper roll should hang. Just like most physical objects are inherently at least a little bit hot (compared to, say, liquid nitrogen), most of these ideas are at least a little bit dumb.

We all know “that guy with the tinfoil hat.” He’ll swear his reflective headpiece is the only thing keeping the government from stealing his design for a water burning engine; and is happy to share the statistics, anecdotes, and news clippings to prove it. It’s easy to laugh at the cognitive dissonance of “that guy” and point out the fallacy in his logic. Why does he not understand how crazy he sounds?

Well, it’s the same reason that you don’t understand how crazy you sound sometimes. As human beings, we are programmed to create a set of opinions and behavior patterns based on our experiences. It keeps us alive and, hopefully, from repeating uncomfortable situations. Unfortunately, most of those observations are biased and incomplete; the conclusions (ideas) drawn from them are rather thin (and sometimes shiny and hat-shaped).

These experiences have given all of us our own personal collection of tinfoil hats. We’ve just worn them so long, we don’t realize what they are.

Currently, our country is seeing sharp divisions along our social, political, and cultural lines. This has been one of the most divisive elections I can remember. Much of that strife comes from the volatile combination of an abundance of diversity and a lack of inclusion. Diversity has long been the cornerstone of our country—America: the great melting pot of culture and tradition. However, a diverse environment without inclusion works about as well as a vacuum cleaner without a belt—it makes a lot of noise without getting anything done. All those perspectives, all the varied knowledge and experience and ideas amount to a whole lot of dust and wind if we don’t take the time and effort to understand and include one another.

It is the very push and pull of tradition vs. innovation that drives excellence. Accomplishment is always colored by a collage of wonderful and terrible ideas. Edison went through about a thousand prototypes for a light bulb. Some of them were probably a little bit dumb.

That’s what makes inclusion so hard. Some ideas are just downright terrible. What’s worse, people are really, deeply invested in these terrible ideas. Some of your favorite ideas probably fall into this category. The point of inclusion is not to blankly accept someone’s flawed ideas, practices, or world views, but rather, to understand that your own ideas, practices, and world views are probably just as flawed.

So tomorrow morning take a long look in the mirror, look yourself firmly in the eyes and say: “Some of my ideas today are going to be a little bit dumb.” You can’t see your tinfoil hat, but, hopefully, someone else will. Approach your peer’s crazy idea with the grace that you’ll need. That’s how we start to have meaningful, valuable conversations. That’s how we progress. That’s inclusion.

Author’s note: This article is based on an idea and, therefore, is likely to be at least a little dumb.

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About The Author

Justin Novak’s picture

Justin Novak

Justin Novak is a 12-year veteran of the precision measurement field. He currently works at Newport News Shipbuilding, the sole designer, builder, and refueler of U.S. Navy aircraft carriers. As supervisor of new technology, Novak manages a team responsible for integrating laser scanning technology into traditional metrology processes.

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Dumb Ideas

There are no dumb ideas, only dumb answers...