‘Ideas are cheap, execution is everything’ is a recognized maxim in product development, and it’s mostly true. You don’t have to look hard to find examples of ideas that were brought to life with different approaches and vastly different outcomes.
But there’s a real danger hovering around the creation of ideas: us. You and me. We are geared to evaluate ideas almost immediately — our job survival depends on it. Ideas are easy prey because they are suffused with implied costs. “How would I do this? Who’s involved to bring it to life? How long would it take?”
As such, ideas rarely — if ever — remain cheap for long. Worse, this tendency towards evaluation teaches us to ignore certain ideas at their inception. “That would take forever. I don’t have the resources. Someone else is already doing that.”
Some might call this approach efficiency; let’s get to the best solution at the simplest cost as quickly as possible. That’s an admirable goal, and it has its place. But when this evaluation occurs during the creative process — when it prevents ideas from being cheap — we’re short-changing the solution. We’re also dooming our work to continue rehashing itself, which is a dead-end road for anyone in a creative environment.
“I think if people know too much about their own industries, then they’re ultimately too influenced by it: either they won’t try things because people have already done them, or they just get focused on what the trends are instead of defining them.”
— Joshua Davis interviewed on The Great Discontent
The danger of preemptive evaluation applies to any creative process, not just the biggest ones. It comes into play when considering a new feature, or enhancing existing ones. It happens at granular levels as much as it does at 40,000 feet in the air.
How do we keep ideas cheap?
When I studied writing in school, a book by Natalie Goldberg changed the way I looked at writing — really, at creating in general:
“It is important to separate the creator and the editor or internal censor when you practice writing, so that the creator has free space to breathe, explore, and express.”
— Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones
There are two things here worth noting:
- You are both a creator and an editor of ideas. You must learn to separate the functions. It is enormously true when writing; the editor in your head begins critiquing the words the moment you write them. It is equally true when generating ideas in general. Turn off the editor and let the most absurd ideas spill out of your brain. Enjoy their absurdity, because inside them may be a kernel of a true winner.
- You are practicing. I love the wording she uses: “practice writing.” I used to think a writer just sat down at a table and wrote, and maybe they threw away some work and other work sat on a shelf, and some eventually saw the light of day. But I never thought of it as practicing.
What would your work look like if you considered it practice? Some wonderful, enjoyable things start happening:
- The urgency goes out of finding solutions. “I’m exploring, I’m seeing what’s here. I’m not sure what’s going to work yet, but I’m gathering information. I’m not discarding any possibilities.”
- The ability — the expectation — of failure presents itself, in a safe and manageable way. “I’m practicing, I’m expecting to make mistakes and to learn to correct them. I’m going to try things out before deciding what’s worth truly pursuing.”
There are no million dollar ideas, but we are built to believe there are. Keeping ideas cheap helps us truly evaluate their net worth.