This idea should die

Is there an idea that you think should be taken out of circulation? A commonly held notion that’s holding us back, that’s outdated, or that you wish would just fade out of use, to be replaced by a more helpful idea?

I’m asking (sincerely) because of a podcast I recently enjoyed that was focused on just this topic — “ideas that must die.” (Freakonomics, maybe you heard it?)

Theirs were pretty big — ”the universe” (to be replaced by the multiverse), “true or false” (an idea isn’t ever really one or the other), and “data is enough to tell you truths about the world” (the role of intuition in scientific discovery), amongst others.

What I like about the question is how it shines a spotlight on our ideas as…a design choice.

Our assumptions, preconditioned awareness and biases shape our experience and behavior. We stop using outdated tools when they are replaced by more effective ones, so what about the toolkit of ideas we’re carrying around with us all the time?

I also like the question because it’s rascally and iconoclastic. Just asking it feels like blowing a fresh breeze through the stale corners of my mind.

So I wanted to turn the question into a tool for upside-down thinking about a subject I’m interested in. What happens when I start looking for ideas I’d be willing to kill off?

Ok so here we go, a quick and dirty first try.

My subject of choice for this thought experiment is a space we spend a lot of time pondering, ogling, and practicing over here: How people relate and get things done together.

(Buzzword translation: collaboration. Reframe translation: the complexity of culture and the subtlety of human interaction.)

Good candidates for the Idea-Death-Row are ones that people commonly accept, tacitly follow, but which I feel are holding us back from more enjoyable, free, effective ways of working together.

So here are my first selections — ideas about collaboration that I think should be replaced:

It works better with creative people.

Some kinds of creativity get in the way of collaboration. I’m sure you can imagine some examples. It seems like this idea pushes us towards a notion of collaboration that is more performance-like, more interested in novelty for the sake of novelty. When collaboration is really working, creativity is present in all people because it’s present in the fabric of the interactions — not because they are “creative” types of people in the room. Good collaboration is characterised by a flow of energy, communication, listening and action that is inherently generative for the people and process at hand. So I’d retire this idea in favor of: “Collaboration itself is creative.”

Losing all motivation and feeling bored is a bad sign.

Boredom and lack of interest are revealing. The problem isn’t when they show up, it’s when they go unnamed. And the interesting thing is, often when someone announces they are bored, it becomes the most interesting moment in the group. Boredom or sluggishness, when they are recognized and named, invite complimentary states of enlivened engagement back into the room. Rather than being something to avoid, a healthy collaboration can appreciate the insight of boredom and transmute it into new directions.

Emotions are sacred.

It’s probably truer to write “emotions are scary.” For many groups and cultures, that’s a truth that needs no justification. My motivation to axe the idea that emotions are sacred comes from the recognition of the other extreme — that collaborations can quickly get bogged down in an over-privileging of subjective experience. (Maybe you’ve been part of a meeting where an emotional outburst silences the group, or conversely, completely hijacks the discussion?)

I think the life-giving essence of a dynamic collaboration is that it transcends the personal perspective and includes it in an enlivening, generative emergent process. One that leaves us all refreshed because it isn’t controlled by us or constrained by our ideas and preferences. Rewarding collaboration takes us beyond ourselves. From this perspective, emotions may come and they may go. They can inform the insights and flow of a group, but they don’t need to stop the show or rule the day.

Everyone plays an equal part.

Having a healthy sense of dynamic hierarchy and appropriate roles creates diversity, which brings energy. It’s enjoyable to be liberated to contribute your own gifts, and to watch others do the same. Great collaborations don’t equalize everyone’s contributions; they elevate and integrate the diversity of talents in the room. So I’d replace this idea with “Everyone is supported and challenged to contribute their fullest.” Instead of making sure everyone has equal air time, focusing on what frees everyone up to contribute their fullest will create more a more coherent and enlivening collaboration.

“What’s in it for me?” is a dirty question.

Being in a culture that integrates opposites and makes room for both sides of a polarity feels good in my experience. I find it trustable, and it invites transparency and fluidity. The reason this one’s on the list is because I think it’s quite natural for participants to have a stake in what’s unfolding in a collaboration, and to have desires and hopes for the outcome and their own participation. If we can’t bring that in with us, they we’re already starting with a half-rigged ship. When a group excludes or silences the individual interests and desires that are already in the room, it also misses out on the vital energy that those interests contain.

Speed is a measure of efficiency.

I think a bias for efficiency in collaborations only rubs us the wrong way if efficiency is being measured in terms of speed. But if we separate efficiency from speed, we get an emphasis on the precision of a process. An efficient group doesn’t have to be a quick group — but it’s a group that wastes little energy. Energy arrives in many forms, including emotion, diversity, challenge, conflict…so whenever a group is excluding these elements, the group is wasting energy. The definition of inefficiency. I love the idea that efficiency is rich and deep, as unpredictable as it needs to be, and that as far as collaboration is concerned, time is a question that gets answered well if efficiency is allowed to flourish.

Questioning these assumed things brings up a “clean slate / spring cleaning” kind of feeling for me, which is followed by a question:

When faced with their own demise, will those ideas start speaking to me differently? Will I be so ready to do without them? And how will my design thinking about collaborations become more nuanced as a result?

Rather than me answering, I hope you’ll chime in. Did my list offend you? Did I leave something out? What’s on your list?

Originally published at on March 21, 2015.

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