So I wrote this thing about how maybe your big idea sucks. Perhaps your big idea isn’t so bad. It could be awesome. It’s not really about the idea itself, as much as it is about whether anyone cares; it’s about being a leader and making the idea happen.

I thought perhaps it was a bit irresponsible to pronounce that your big idea might suck and offer no way to turn it into a blazing monument to human awesomeness. If you don’t know that your big idea might not be great, you’re going to fail. This is called hubris. However, knowing your big idea might not be great doesn’t mean you aren’t going to fail; it could just mean you’ve become self-defeating.

Fortunately, there’s one thing you can do to not suck.

Just to complete the Upworthy hucksterism, I could even tell you that if you do this one thing, you won’t believe what happens next! That said, you’re going to have to read the whole piece to get what I’m on about, or skip to near the bottom (in which case you will probably be disappointed, because I’m not Upworthy, and this stuff takes some, y’know, thinking.)

Whether you’re talking about the introduction of a new idea, or even just managing people, designing the future is always political. If you want people to do something they’re not currently doing, or do something differently, the amazingness of your idea is not sufficient to make them do it. We can’t penetrate another person’s consciousness, which means we can’t make anyone do anything of their own volition. It is for that reason that politics exists. Humans organize politically to accomplish everything humans accomplish.

So, how do ideas happen? How does one not suck?

Leaders Shouldn’t Suck

An important way into answering these questions is illuminated by our rather thoroughgoing belief that the people we call “leaders” shouldn’t suck, and yet we all know, they often do. Even generally great leaders are sometimes loathsome. Why?

We know, in a deeply profound way, what leaders should be. Simon Sinek is really very eloquent in articulating what we know we want from leaders. We want servant leaders. We want leaders that know that leadership isn’t merely about being lionized, or having the best parking spot, or the corner office. We want leaders that are willing to, as Simon says, run toward danger.

Over the last several decades, a truly staggering number of management and leadership books have been written (640,000 results on Amazon.) Untold numbers of speakers have held forth in countless conventions and webinars. The prescription is always the same: treat each other well. Still, we’re all quite familiar with the fact that most of the people that are called leaders are neither leaders nor do they treat others well. The avalanche of advice seems to have done not a thing. It’s the great leadership and management paradox of our time!

This seems to suggest that the problem isn’t the leaders. Just like the problem isn’t your big idea. The problem is political; it’s structural. The political tools we use to accomplish stuff lead us into hubris, and usher people who suck into leadership roles.

The implication is we’re not going to get the kind of leaders we want by any combination of demanding, requesting, teaching, or begging. We get the leaders we want by creating and implementing political tools that provide incentives for not sucking. We get the leaders we want through political organizational models that are predicated on trust.

The One Thing

Forget yourself.

That’s the one thing you can do to not suck.

A leader isn’t a leader because we implore that person to be great. Likewise, your big idea isn’t going to be accepted because YOU think it’s awesome and YOU implore those to whom you present your idea to believe you. The kind of leader we all believe is a good leader becomes so because they forget themselves and instead, they push, bend, and manipulate the political structure to make room for trust. Great leaders don’t punish you because you’ve technically violated a policy, they protect your trust by making the politics conform to it.

The same is true for your big idea. Forget yourself. Create a political interaction that privileges trust with the people to whom you intend to present your idea. To forget yourself means to temporarily forget your big idea.

This applies whether you’re a manager, or a consultant, or a big professional services agency. You may be awesome and have awesome ideas, but forget all that and start by building trust with those you wish to help. Immerse yourself in their culture. Observe their behavior. Ask questions about what they’re trying to do, what they need, and what challenges they face. Collaborate with them to craft principles for designing a vision.

Only once you have done these things will there be a basis for trust. Once trust is brokered, your big idea can actually start to matter. It will matter because it will no longer be your big idea; everyone will have some ownership of it. This keeps everyone aligned around persevering to make the idea happen, because people are attached to what they create.

That’s the one thing: Forget yourself. It’s not about you. It’s about you plus those you wish to influence. Influence comes with trust and trust doesn’t start with a punch to the solar plexus. Trust starts when you forget that it’s your big idea so it can become our big idea. Most importantly, it goes from being a big idea to being a big thing.

Now you can confidently point to the evidence and know that you don’t suck.

Read more about the question of making business more human at Be Human Project.

It had been a little over a week since we pitched him on buying into the company. We showed him everything: our work, our books, our client list. That’s when I got the email from him wherein he didn’t merely say “no,” he said, “maybe your big idea sucks.”

I didn’t realize it immediately — I was too defensive to notice — but he helped me learn something important. It turns out, it’s always true. Not only might your big idea suck, but no one wants it rammed down their throat. I’m not being cynical or nihilistic. It’s just human nature.

I used to believe that when someone disagreed, it was because they had a different vision. I felt I could generally discern just what ideological prescription my detractor held by the nature of their criticism. But after I was told, “maybe your big idea sucks,” I finally understood that no one is certain, and most people are deeply uncertain. We aren’t moved by our nature to criticize because we already have profound domain knowledge and an alternative vision to what we’re attacking.

We criticize because, at some point in the past, our own big idea sucked.

Every one of us has had to learn something the hard way; generally, we all learn a lot of stuff that way. Most new ideas are criticized out of the gate because the critics learned something the hard way and their hard-earned knowledge will have its day! Even more frightful is the fact that this new idea doesn’t belong to me! My hard-earned knowledge didn’t even play a role in this new idea! It’s almost a law of nature. Every time a new idea is introduced to a group blindly, there will be members for whom the ineluctable desire to attack cannot be abated.

A wise person I know, Jeff Coburn, once told me he believes creative people have the potential to traverse three stages in their careers. He said he believed most don’t make it all the way to the third stage. He called those stages, “Fight and Lose,” “Fight and Win,” and “Win Without Fighting.”

“Fight and Lose” is easy enough to understand. You’ve got a vision. You push that vision. No one cares. This is common for young creative and visionary people. Everyone that has ever had an idea has been there.

“Fight and Win” is also easy to understand. You’ve got a vision. You push that vision. You’ve been involved in some winning projects before. People are intimidated by your success, confidence and vision. They get out of the way. It’s easy to assume this is a win. It’s not. The trouble with “Fight and Win” is that while people get out of your way, they feel disenfranchised. They will lie in wait. The first mistake you make will be the vector for those you’ve disenfranchised to bring you down. It doesn’t matter how good your vision might have been, because you essentially ignored the hard-earned knowledge of the people you’re claiming to help.

“Win Without Fighting” is not as easy to understand. You’ve got a vision. You immerse yourself in the culture into which you want to present that vision. You observe. You ask questions. I’m only able to articulate those components because my friend, Dave Gray, is writing a book about agility and explained to me that those are the first four of ten principles of agility: purpose, immersion, observation, interrogation. This approach brings those in the culture into which you want to present a vision into the process of creating that vision. Now people aren’t predisposed to attack, because their hard-earned knowledge has been enfranchised. Your vision may be significantly altered by this influence as well.

And yet, we still fight. We didn’t enfranchise our potential investor that day. We fired our ideas at him as if from a canon. He thought they sucked.

Everywhere, people with ideas continue to fight. From highly talented creative individuals to large professional services firms, ideas are introduced like a taekwondo board break, or punch to the gut. They tell us, “We know what’s wrong with your situation. We have the big idea that will solve it. Aren’t you all impressed?” Only then are we, the recipients of the idea, asked what we think.

I can tell you what we think. We think your big idea sucks.

I’m told that brevity is the soul of wit. As such, I thought about just typing the word “politicians” in this article and calling it done. My goal is to demonstrate that communicators — good people by nature — are taught by the tools they use to believe that it is wisdom to be a liar. Politicians would seem to be the most obvious example. But I notice more and more that communications professionals and organizations are great perpetrators of this kind of lexical dissembling. In particular, I’m dubious about all the claims to “humanize” brands and communications.

If I am to convince you that communications tools teach users that it is wisdom to lie, I need to provide some explanation of how this could happen. The key concept to understanding this process is encapsulated in this nice little quotation of Marshall McLuhan (actually John Culkin summarizing McLuhan’s views🙂

We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.

Let’s say your feet are bare and you have to cross some terrain covered in sharp rocks. If you build yourself some shoes from whatever is handy — let’s say some wooden planks — those shoes may require you to walk in an unnatural way. If you’ve got to cross the terrain, what you won’t do is take off the shoes. You’ll walk unnaturally as the cost of protecting your feet. You won’t call it unnatural; you’ll call it wisdom.

The more something becomes known as wisdom, the more difficult it becomes to challenge it, even when it’s clearly unnatural. We could point out that while our intrepid cobbler may be able to cross the sharp rocks unharmed, he is doing other unknown damage to himself by walking in such an awkward manner. We could propose a complete rethink of the shoes he’s constructed and demand more “human” shoes. But his knowledge is wisdom. Rather than abandon wisdom, the likely outcome will be to cut the planks in foot-shaped units and simply call them “human” shoes. That wearers still walk unnaturally will be almost completely lost in the claim that the shoes are now “human.”

This is the origin of the “buzzword.” We recognize the cognitive dissonance that arises from the unnatural machinations we must undertake to use our tools, and it is frustrating. But rather than accepting the challenge of reimagining those tools, we are lulled by the wisdom we’ve derived from them. The result is to take the language of a new insight, graft it superficially onto the old tools and call it innovation.

But it’s not innovation. It’s a lie.

Currently, the biggest lie in communications is made manifest in the use of the word, “human.” It’s absolutely everywhere. The reason it’s everywhere is that we have become collectively aware of the fact that communications tools are only able to see the human participants as reductionistic parts in a machine. Audiences are called “targets” and are cynically manipulated as if they had no agency, as if they were just objects to be moved. We, unsurprisingly, don’t like that a whole lot.

The solution, largely, has been to double down on the machinery (big data anyone?) and claim that the increasingly sophisticated algorithms are making communications more human. Marketing automation tools will allow you to employ personas that, we are told, ensure that people have more personalized, human interactions through the channels into which the algorithms are pushing content. Engagement agencies (née marketing agencies) are throwing glitzy collaboration parties (because humans like parties, right?) and calling it engagement, which, we are told, will create more human businesses. Ads are more “human” now, which is to say that your online behavior is being constantly monitored by algorithms that reduce you to some bit of correlative data. Facebook reduces users to lab rats, evoking the ubiquitous insight that, “if you’re not the buyer or seller in the transaction, you’re the product.”

The trouble is, we’re still making an abstraction out of the audience (targets? personas? consumers?). We’re still ignoring the messy, qualitative parts of the human experience in favor of whatever we can shove into an excel document or graph search. That we call this stuff “human” doesn’t mean it’s not still the same awkward wooden planks strapped to our feet.

To truly “be human,” we have to start with the insight that humans have a unique constitution and unique needs and build from there. We need to imagine our communication tools in the context of the human, instead of the other way around. We need to demand that we should not be made to conform to our tools, our tools should be made to conform to us. We clearly want less convolution (going outside ourselves,) and more involution (coming back to ourselves.) This is not a trivial task; it may be nothing short of a step change in the way we understand these tools. What it isn’t, is an easy positioning strategy to sell more foot shaped wooden planks.

You communicators that are using algorithms and calling it human? I hear there’s a congressional seat opening up in your district.

See this post and others on making business more human at Be Human Project.

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