How to deal with Idea People

If you spend some time on start-up boards or networking events, you’ll run into them. Developers can spot them from the other side of the room and try to stay clear. They’ve taken a Sketchnoting course and are hanging on to their document for life.

I have a great idea for a business, looking for a CTO who will build it for free. You’ll have to sign an NDA before I can explain what it is…

Ideas are cheap.

It’s easy to come up with “great” concepts.

Execution is everything.

I’m pretty sure most Idea People know this. But ideas are also inspirational and exciting. That’s why it feels so purposeful to pursue them. Lack of skills be damned!

In the corporate world, Idea People are often in a position of power. The boss who has a new feature in mind and forces his team to drop everything. That functional analyst who’ll hijack important technical discussions to bikeshed about trivialities. Engineers play a mental drinking game whenever they mention The Cloud. We’ve all been there.

But here’s the thing: it comes from a good place. Idea people genuinely want to help. They truly believe their idea can make a difference. They wouldn’t pursue it if they didn’t think it mattered.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is often summarized as “incompetent people think they are amazing”, but it’s more subtle than that. The less you know about a subject matter, the more black and white the solutions seem. This has nothing to do with being dumb, but with being inexperienced.

“How hard can it be to collect garbage on time?” 

Turns out, it’s pretty hard. If you don’t consider city planning, area density, recycling technicalities and union agreements, picking up the garbage is pretty straightforward. I have an idea! Why don’t we just use bigger trucks?

Expertise and deep knowledge are required to solve hard problems. An accountant is not going to stumble across the cure for cancer by accident. It’s extremely unlikely Idea People will outsmart the experts in the room. Dismissing these hunches is an effective time management strategy for experts.

As a result, Idea People often feel like they’re not being heard. That strengthens their resolve. They’ll get defensive. Especially when they are in a position of power.

I once worked on an asynchronous high-latency system with an analyst who only came up with real-time features. When a user pressed a button, time-space would have to bend to suit his wireframes. Analysis documents were constantly sent back: not physically possible. His features had become a cynical running gag among developers. He felt like he was not being taken seriously. 

We never solved this communication issue and frustration ran high. In hindsight, we should have approached that differently.

What we should have done is making him feel heard while increasing his knowledge of the subject matter. 

So how do you do that? How do you take an Idea Person seriously?

You partner up.

Grab a one-on-one coffee and let them walk through their solution without interrupting. They’ll soon run into the limitations of their knowledge. Then ask the difficult “How?” questions.

I cannot stress this hard enough, but the goal is NOT to rub their ignorance in their face. If you create a Gotcha! moment, it’s better to not have that coffee…

Helping them discover why it’s not that simple gets you three benefits. 

  1. You’ll take a flawed idea off the table. 
  2. Their knowledge increases and Dunning-Kruger tells us their next ideas will be more informed.
  3. You’ll create a partner instead of an angry colleague.

To non-technical people, software development is a dense cloud of witchcraft. Working with developers often makes them feel dumb. They have no idea how all of it works and don’t really want to know the specifics.  

But they do want to contribute…