womn with ideas on a whiteboard

What if we can’t recognise good ideas?

Good ideas are everywhere because people are imaginative and smart. Success is more about how the idea gets out into the world than its innate quality. It is likely to be a bumpy journey. Check out this languid lament…

Suppose that you have a complex idea that you need to explain. 

Let’s say it’s a paradigm shift in your discipline or a disruptive technology that will change everything. 

Only it is not easy to explain this new idea because it means people have to think, suspend some disbelief, and even throw out some established truths that might have worked in the past.

It is unlikely that just rocking up and blurting out the idea will work. Some preparation is needed. 

Here are a few things that might help:

  1. Really understand your idea. 
  1. Figure out the best way to communicate the essence of the idea, what benefits it brings and how it will change the lives of those it touches. This is not the time for the technical details just a clear description of the benefits with a hint at the core concept.
  1. Choose a communication tool – a chat over coffee, death by PowerPoint, a blog post, a few tweets, perhaps a book or even an old fashioned television ad – whatever the best methods might be, you will need some comms channels.
  1. Test your comms approach, practice it and hone it.
  1. Get some early feedback to see just how many people will get the idea.
  1. Market and sell the idea as if your life depended on it.

All good. This is standard pitch fare and familiar to anyone who has tried their hand at entrepreneurship.

Get this sequence right and at least some of the people will understand your idea and give you feedback on it. A few will like it and others will not.

Of course, there will be some who will not understand the concept at all. 

This is to be expected. People are generally not good listeners, have way more important things to spend their bandwidth on, and were probably sexting their date during the PowerPoint slides.

Even so, they could pay attention during the summary or even the Q&A session and get most of what you were on about. 

Typically, your audience is highly educated, familiar with the broad topics, has some experience with the day to day aspects of the profession, and should have at least a peripheral interest in the idea, especially if you just told them it’s a game-changer. They would pay some attention if only to let you know you are wrong. In most professional circles the proportion of ‘just don’t get it’ folk should be small.

This is roughly how I have operated my entire career. I have assumed that complex ideas can be communicated. 

I learned to accept that not everyone will get it the first time around. However, I believed that most will understand the idea eventually given enough exposure through well-executed and diverse communication skills. 

Only what if this assumption is incorrect? 

What if they will never get it?

It has never crossed my mind that people will never get it. That a complex idea might just be beyond people. 

In a crowd, there will be a few who would never understand no matter how many times the ideas are presented. I accept this inevitably. Only I thought the proportion was small enough not to worry about it. 

The scary thought I have now is that the proportion of ‘non comprendo’ is large, perhaps a landslide majority.

Such a possibility I can’t contemplate because my egoic assumption is always that they will get it so long as the messaging can be tailored to them. Sooner or later the light bulb will go on.

Now I am quaking as I question this assumption. 

Maybe there are some ideas that people will never understand. Some concepts that a few people get intuitively but the majority just don’t, no matter how good the communication or how many cool tools are used.

I’m labouring this to give it time to sink in.

woman crossing the road with confused expression
Photo by Joseph Frank on Unsplash

Maybe ideas go something like this…

Take the idea into a classroom of seven years olds. 

Thirty cheeky faces calm down and hear the idea. Three of them are smiling even more when you have finished. The rest are bored silly.

Take the idea into a year 12 classroom at the end of the school education system. The same thing happens, three adolescents are hanging off your every word, the rest are looking at selfies.

Next, it’s thirty neighbours you invite round for a barbie. Three of them stop drinking their beers because they are so into what you are saying. The rest are gossiping about last night’s episode of MAFS.

Try the same thing with thirty work colleagues. Only three have any idea what you are talking about.

Then comes the worrying part. 

You present the idea to thirty senior civil servants who are directors of departments and advisors to government ministers. Same again. Only three of them nod at you, the rest are reading emails on their phones.

In the past, I would have just put it down to a poor presentation and tried again. Maybe found a new delivery method under the assumption that if you keep at it, the naysayers and ignorant can be enlightened. 

Now I am not so sure. 

Some ideas may just be beyond such entrenched people. They will never get it.

In other words, it is not about me or about the idea. It is what is possible in the heads of the receivers. And it may be much less than I realised.

People might say that an idea’s time will come. Maybe this is just too early for your game changer and there is truth in this; timing is important. Ideas need a context and a place to take hold but if there are some ideas, concepts and consequences that people will never understand, then we have a new problem. 

How do we decide which of the many ideas have a chance of being understood?

As the human population booms and careers towards bust, it is essential that we answer this question and soon.

At sustainably FED we don’t want you to be one of those people who don’t get new ideas.

We don’t want you in the majority who don’t understand or miss great opportunities. We want you to see new ideas and understand how valuable they are so you can come up with even better ones.

young people working out an idea on a whiteboard
Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash

What sustainably FED asks….

Is this languid lament true? 

Are we so out of touch that we cannot take on anything more complex than a tweet or a cute cat picture?

Was it ever thus? 

Are we just too busy and so chaotic that we do not have the available brainpower to even hear your idea?

At sustainably FED we have seen this lack of understanding happen too often to believe it is a coincidence or a consequence of poor communication skills.

What do you think? Are we bonkers or is there some truth in this?

If there is, what does it mean for how we communicate big policy changes in the future?

If you would like to learn some of the skills to detect good ideas, understand the evidence, and build your own empires to save the planet check out more of our posts and consider enrolling on our eCourses

sustainably FED

Hero image modified from a photo by MING Labs on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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