Tuesday, January 25, 2011

How do we keep the idiots at bay?

I read an excellent article today in the Harvard Business review by Bill Taylor about Why Do Smart People Do Such Dumb Things?.

Taylor explores why good ideas go disastrously wrong, why innovation often appears to lead to disaster, concluding that Warren Buffet had the right of it,

Leave it to Warren Buffet to offer a thoughtful perspective. In a memorable, hour-long PBS interview with Charlie Rose during the 2008 crisis, Buffet gave a master class in how the world got into its economic mess and what we can learn from it.

At one point, Rose asked the question that scholars, pundits, and plaintiffs attorneys will be debating for years: "Should wise people have known better?" Of course they should have, Buffet replied, but there's a "natural progression" to how good new ideas go badly wrong. He called this progression the "three Is." First come the innovators, who see opportunities that others don't and champion new ideas that create genuine value. Then come the imitators, who copy what the innovators have done. Sometimes they improve on the original idea, often they tarnish it. Last come the idiots, whose avarice undermines the very innovations they are trying to exploit.
This progression from innovation to imitation to idiocy is not limited to the finance market. We've seen it occur in advertising, in property, in fashion, toys and engineering. In fact it occurs in virtually every industry and profession - including in government.

So how do we keep the idiocy at bay, keeping innovators and (effective) imitators in ascendency?

Taylor doesn't answer this question, so I thought I might throw in a few thoughts.

Firstly we need to train people to distinguish between imitation and idiocy. Provide them with the skills and experience to draw a line in the sand, resisting ideas and approaches that would fail.

Secondly we need to benchmark and share in-depth case studies. Share not only what worked but why it worked and how it worked - or why it did not. The psychological, economic and engineering principles that were applied to turn an idea into an effective execution. This builds greater understanding of the principles underlying success or failure, not simply the 'bling'.

Finally we need to foster continuous innovation. When people have the skills and experience, coupled with ready access to examples of success and failure, they are better equipped to create new concepts and build on existing ideas whilst identifying the paths that would lead to idiocy.

Of course, at the same time, we need to educate upwards and outwards - help senior managers, political offices and external stakeholders understand what works and why. While this mightn't totally prevent them from getting caught up with a novel idea, or rejecting an effective one, it at least helps them understand afterwards.


In Gov 2.0 we're already seeing the imitators attempting to mimic innovative successes from the past few years. That's fine, it can appear safer to go second or twenty-third - although rarely does an imitation aim to reach exactly the same audience, exist in the same environment or get executed in the same way, by the same people.

In the end, I expect we will never be able to completely keep idiocy at bay, but we can, at least, contain it.

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