Working In Uncertainty
by Matthew Leitch, first published 15 February 2006.
This article is about the delicate business of giving and receiving ideas. The most common reason for clients asking me to help them with their work is that they would like me to give them some ideas. Over the years I've learned a bit about giving and receiving ideas and formed some policies on how I give ideas in my role as an independent consultant and researcher. Here are those policies and the reasons for them.
Policy #1: Give ideas consistent with the basic beliefs of the receiver
When someone asks for ideas they want ideas that are consistent with their basic beliefs. Fortunately, that is not as much of a restriction as I used to think. We all have beliefs in our heads that are not consistent with each other, but we don't realise it. Advice only has to be consistent with some basic beliefs to be acceptable and useful. In addition, in the right conditions some people can be remarkably open minded.
In theory it would be possible to give ideas that are consistent with the receiver's beliefs but not the giver's. In practice it is hard to have ideas using beliefs you do not hold.
Policy #2: Give ideas after researching the circumstances
Giving ideas is a highly uncertain activity. There are so many hidden reasons why an idea might not be appropriate that any suggestion has no more than a chance of being usable. Some research will usually increase the chance of ideas hitting the spot. If the receiver hasn't already done something that seems obvious then the receiver is stupid or has some reason for leaving the idea. The most insulting mistake is to assume the receiver is stupid.
Another reason for researching before giving ideas is that ideas have to work in detail as well as in principle. Neither top down, nor bottom up thinking is as good as thinking that works in both directions simultaneously and rapidly. Every fragment of background information may be an important clue to the solution.
Policy #3: Offer ideas as hypotheses
Despite all the precautions of research, giving ideas is still a gamble. You think an idea is appropriate, and have reasons for thinking that, but you could be wrong. Consequently I prefer to offer an idea as a hypothesis: ‘Here is an idea that may be appropriate and useful to you. Let's consider it together.’
Policy #4: Give reasons for thinking that ideas may be applicable
Offered an idea that ‘may be appropriate’ most people naturally want to know why it may be appropriate. Any hypothesis worth offering should have some strong arguments in favour of it. Sometimes those arguments will seem so strong that it is difficult to see any alternative. However, not being able to see an alternative does not mean one doesn't exist. The idea is still a hypothesis, just a hot one!
Policy #5: Give alternative ideas if possible
Even very diligent research will not reveal all the circumstances that may affect the value of an idea, so giving alternatives is sensible even if the suggestions are occasionally incompatible with each other. Another advantage of giving alternatives is that it discourages the giver of ideas from becoming attached to one and clinging to it too long.
Policy #6: Free the receiver to accept or reject the idea but ensure all major reasons have been considered
It is not reasonable to expect the receiver of an idea to justify its rejection. It is helpful to know why an idea doesn't look applicable because this could reveal circumstances that are important for other ideas. However, there are times when it is best to just acknowledge acceptance or rejection without probing as to why. The receiver of the advice can be trusted.
However, there are times when the receiver may have rejected an idea without understanding all the reasons in favour of it, and without a reason that rules the idea out. In short, the receiver may be mistaken. In those circumstances it is important to check that the major reasons have been understood.
Policy #7: Give the receiver time to assimilate new ideas; it may take months
If someone asks for ideas on some topic that really matters to them, and if the ideas, if assimilated, will lead them to act very differently in the future, then that is a courageous thing to do. It also displays a level of trust that should be honoured.
People need time and space to think for themselves. It can take weeks or even months to sift through a set of new ideas, accepting, rejecting, modifying, integrating, rewording, and developing. As a giver of ideas there are few things more rewarding than seeing how someone has assimilated some ideas into their own repertoire.
Ideally, advice is well researched, put forward with an open mind, and with proper respect for the person who has asked for input. The ideal source of outside ideas is an ego-less collector of good ideas and a creative thinking machine, not an advocate.
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Words © 2006 Matthew Leitch. First published 15 February 2006.