It’ll never work

“I’m just being practical, but I don’t see how we can make this work,” he said. The team had come up with an idea built on their workplace skills and interests outside of work. It was a novel idea that on the face of it sounded exciting, but took little effort to find flaws in the concept.

Such responses drive me to despair. While a trivial example, it is symptomatic of the constrained thinking that all too often prevails in many discussions. The process seems to go like this:

  1. Someone has a really great idea; whilst sounding great, it also seems a little improbable
  2. Someone else thinks it through for a moment and identifies a potential flaw in the plan
  3. This flaw is then used as the basis to dismiss the idea and before it has any chance to fly, it dies

The problem I’m talking about is the idle way of thinking that destroys creativity through an illusion of seemingly credible, logical pragmatism.

More often than not, the problem is a function of focus. Focusing on things that will prevent the idea working ensures it is well and truly crushed before it has even got off the ground. However, if the focus is changed from reasons “why not” to “how can we make this work” the discussion is very different in tonality and approach. Possibilities rather than constraints are explored; ideas build on ideas until, eventually a way through is found to make the idea a reality.

Generally, the negative comments towards ideas are wrapped in a language such as:

  • “We need to be serious about what we can do….” or
  • “Speaking pragmatically….”
  • “We shouldn’t be wasting time on idle speculation…”

The underlying assumption behind the negativity is that a good idea is one that is almost fully workable from the outset – in other words, it looks, feels, smells the same as everything that has gone before – it’s just slightly different. This assumption is inherently wrong.

A sculptor does not expect a perfect statue simply by grabbing a lump of clay. They have to mould and shape it, to stand back, reflect, refine and if necessary re-do. Great ideas are like a lump of clay, they are full of possibility and potential, but they need to be worked. If after a little working of the clay, someone criticised the sculptor with a “that looks nothing like….” comment, the obvious response is “of course not, it’s a work in progress.” So too it is with great ideas – finding reasons why they won’t work is the equivalent of a “that looks nothing like…” comment.

Why can people be so destructive towards embryonic ideas? I suspect the reasons are complex and include the perception of a threat towards their area of work, or a worry about the loss of control, or antipathy towards the originator of the idea. And of course, the idea sounds improbable but without new ideas, the world would stagnate and become a boring place. Sometimes we cannot achieve what we want to achieve unless we come up with challenging, alternative ideas. In short, new ideas need nurturing not killing.

So what can we do about it?


Watch your language. Words and phrases like; ‘obviously’, ‘human nature’, ‘always’, ‘have to’, ‘must’, ‘no choice’ are neat ways in which people give an opinion, state a fact and make it difficult to argue or disagree with. Change “what we have to do is….” to “one possibility is….” and the tone shifts from a no-choice, no-discussion option to one that recognises options. Practise the language of possibility, not constraint.

Be curious

Take as a starting point: “How could we make this work? What would we need to do? What might have to be changed in order to make this work?” Having thought through a range of possibilities, you will begin to get a sense of how viable the ideas are. It begins with simply being curious about the idea.

Don’t fear the future

Just because you are exploring a new idea, does not mean it is going to happen. Worries and fears are important parts of the discussion. If you have concerns, so will others, therefore it is useful to address them in a positive, constructive way, i.e. “how do we address these fears and concerns to enable the idea to work?”

You can always say no

Having worked through all the possibilities necessary to make an idea come to fruition, you can always say “no”. Just because lots of people have spent a lot of time considering the idea, does not mean it is the right thing to do. But at least in exploring the idea fully, you have created an option where none may have existed previously.

So what happened to the great idea that was dismissed out of hand? It died the death of many great ideas. The salt in the wound came from press coverage a year later of the same idea that was proving to be very successful for another company.

Dominic Irvine © 2018 All rights asserted.