Good Ideas and Working Together

Good Ideas and Working Together 150 150 IEEE Pulse
Author(s): Arthur T. Johnson

The late physicist and Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling once said. “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.” And, that also implies that, of the many ideas generated in one’s head, a lot of them would not be classified as “good”; not all of our ideas are worth the calories they take to develop them.

That certainly is true for a person I know quite well who seems to have a solution for each and every one of my problems. As soon as I say something about a challenge that I face, he would offer his ideas to solve my problem. He doesn’t even wait for details. I can’t remember any of his ideas that were any good for me, so I often thank him profusely for finding an answer that had escaped me. I try to lay on the satire as thickly as I can. He laughs and goes on, but he doesn’t stop his suggestions. There are other people who no longer like to talk with this person because of his strong opinions, which he freely shares with anyone unlucky enough to be in conversation with him. The quote that would apply to this person is by Leonard Pitts, Jr., who said, “Not everyone has something to say. This will not stop them from saying it.”

On the other hand, I once had a graduate student full of good ideas. Out of his mouth came a litany of possible things to work on and solutions to problems that seemed intractable to others in our research group. Not all of his ideas were gems, but he validated the quote by Linus Pauling by having enough good ideas that we had to listen to all of them lest we miss something worthwhile. People like this graduate student are valuable to an organization as long as they are given the freedom to suggest ideas when offered, and as long as they understand the problems others are having. This particular student could have been considered to have an intrusive curiosity about his need to learn the details used by his colleagues, but this part of his curiosity was tolerated, even embraced, when he offered ideas that were not apparent to the one with the problem.

Good ideas, even mediocre or bad ideas, originate from a single individual. I like to think that collaboration, not just the efforts of one creative individual, is usually best to accomplish any particular goal. One exception to this is in the field of the creative arts. Certainly, great paintings, sculptures, dances, writings, vocal performances, and other forms of artistic talent require good ideas and efforts by the originator to complete them. It is hard to imagine a great painting or sculpture that could come from a committee. And, Linus Pauling was most likely not referring to the creative arts when he uttered the quote given above. So, excluding artistic endeavors, realization of a good idea usually requires the assistance of others.

Maryland Governor Wes Moore once said, “If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.” However, a collaborative group, often a committee, must be able to solicit ideas from individuals either in their group or without, accept them, and build upon them. Problems arise when the committee does not coalesce around a specific idea, but attempts to form its action as a compromise among other suggestions, most of which are not by themselves adequate to solve the problem at hand.

There is a derisive term, “design by committee,” that refers to undesirable or suboptimal results produced from having to compromise between the viewpoints of many of the group participants. Especially in the presence of poor leadership or without the one person to generate superior ideas, the committee may produce results unsatisfactory to almost everyone. The saying goes that a “camel is a horse designed by committee.” Of course, many committees do produce satisfactory results because they can start with a good idea and add to, or embellish, it with improvements so that it becomes much more than worthwhile.

There are often real-life limitations to the implementation of any course of action derived from a good idea. Here is where the well-led committee can help to develop a nascent good idea into a practical outcome. But, the committee, although needed to facilitate implementation, must be able to focus its attention around one particular good idea in order to complete its task satisfactorily. Again, the good idea originates with the creative processes of one particular person.

We probably all know of people with good ideas who try to go it alone. None of us has all the knowledge, experience, ability, or connections to produce the best results with only a good idea. We need others to complement our inadequacies with the talents that they possess. That is the function of a good committee, as long as the membership consists of individuals capable of working with a good idea and knowing or learning how to make the idea work. Diversity is a term appropriate here, especially if the diversity applies to the range of talents available to the committee to achieve its delegated mission.

A good idea is the start, and that almost always comes from someone with many ideas. However, realization of that idea usually requires more abilities than possessed only by that one person. But, it all starts with a good idea.