It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

So, it seemed like a good idea at the time…Okay now. This is a matter with which I have some experience. No, I don’t think I’m the only one who has surveyed a mess of their own making and said, or at least thought, “well, it sure seemed like a good idea at the time”. That’s the thing about these good ideas and the reflective hindsight they demand of us. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” Often all parties are content to leave it there assuming some sort of lesson has been learned. In some sense it’s a remorseful attempt to explain that some measure of thought justified the attempt to implement the ‘good idea’. The remorse typically arises from the collateral damage caused by the ‘good idea’. The idea was good but the consequences…not so good. There is a butterfly effect typically involved with this ‘good idea’ phenomenon. That is, many, if not all actions inspired by thinking something was a ‘good idea at the time’ have consequences that ripple outward, impacting others. These impacts can be dramatic and tragic or relatively benign, leaving the perpetrator feeling rather alone and clownish.

Vladimir Putin apparently had what seemed like ‘a good idea at the time’ with horrific consequences for Ukrainians, Russians, and for much of the world. I suspect the problem with Mr. Putin’s ‘good ideas’ is that no one seated at the other end of his bowling alley-sized table dared to say, “You know, Vlad. I don’t think this is such a good idea.” Indeed, regardless of what his comrades may have been thinking, they, no doubt, continued to provide what the ego-inflated and self-appointed Czar wanted to hear- his idea was brilliant. Although the whispering behind the Czar’s back no doubt included pledges among his underlings to just “keep the outcome of the Czar’s good idea between us. You know, message management?”

Therein lies several major variables upon which bad ideas that seemed like good ideas at the time, rest. First, time does not stand still. So, decisions based on a single moment in time fail to recognize good ideas at one moment in time may not be at some later point. Plenty of people thought that was true about our President’s “off script” remarks on his recent trip to Ukraine. It seemed like the right thing to say at the moment, but it got a little messy a short time later.

Second, there is a solitary quality to these good ideas. The rightness of your ‘good idea’ has already been established in your mind. You feel confident about just “going for it”. And, even while you may include people in your circle who you can ‘bounce it off of’ if you cannot elicit an honest assessment, there is a greater risk of failure. No one wants to hear their good idea is not such a good idea and who wants to be the one to throw a wet blanket on it (and be accused of being “so negative”?) I suppose honest input hinges on the quality of the relationship between the creator of the good idea and those who may evaluate it. So, it’s a cost/benefit matter. If you know the creator of the good idea has settled on its brilliance, is it worth the cost of a challenge? Or, if you are the sort of good idea creator who disdains challenges, you will surround yourself with those who will listen and nod thoughtfully before offering their enthusiastic assent. Proposing changes may end up being personally costly.

A friend of mine; a gruff and successful, founder and CEO of a very large company, scoffed at the idea of hiring consultants who propose to bring good ideas to one’s company. “You pay them a lot of money to say what you wanted to hear”, he believed. As a consultant myself in the waning days of my employment life, I admit there is some wisdom in his assessment. You are hired to give your best counsel, but crapping on the ‘good idea’ of the person who pays you may not be the wisest course of action. Moreover, sometimes a good idea is so blatantly bad, there is no time to finesse a delicate response. One has to choose; speak your mind, be quiet but share responsibility for the consequences, or, simply refuse to be a part of it. Then there is the complicating factor that your assessment may not be accurate and you’re now on record as having opposed it… that too has a tendency to blow-up your engagement as a consultant.

The aim, on some level, has got to be establishing an agreement requiring each party to provide their honest input on ‘good ideas’. The generator of ‘good ideas’ preferably develops an atmosphere encouraging honest input. But there we are. Open atmospheres are a tricky business. An open atmosphere is premised on the understanding that input should be constructive; but if ‘constructive’ is framed as discovering the kernel of brilliance in the good idea well, there you go. (There’s a pony in there somewhere!). It’s a conundrum.

The wise generators of good ideas surround themselves with those who have developed a track record for supporting ideas that bear fruit from those that don’t. This capacity for discernment raises the whole issue of how astute leadership has a well-honed capacity for intuitive decision making. Malcolm Gladwell’s book, BLINK lauds intuition and, rightly so. But there is a place for intuition in the pantheon of good decisions and its place is limited. One or two intuitive bullseyes does not mean you possess the power to divine the best path forward. It’s easy to overestimate our intuitive powers after a few wins. One that comes to mind is George W Bush’s take on Vladimir Putin- “I looked the man in the eye…I was able to get a sense of his soul.” Oops! This is why a team or friends who possess different temperament’s is useful.

Just to be clear, this is not a lesson on leadership. As is the case with all my writing it is autobiographical which, I’ve learned over many years, often means it too is about you. My life is littered with ‘good ideas at the time’ events/experiences that I have no intention of detailing here. I will share one however, that was formative for me and came at considerable expense. Possessing a BB gun as a boy was a big deal; having your own reflected a kind of rite of passage. (The movie, “A Christmas Story” portrays this very well) Holding your BB gun offered a power unfamiliar to a young boy. Aim, fire and you could break bottles, perforate tin cans, and even kill small animals. The more you used it, the more comfortable and confident you became. Then, one day I shot a sparrow that was feeding at a birdfeeder outside my parent’s home. It fell off the perch and into the snow. I was stunned by the way the bird simply dropped and ran to the birdfeeder hoping the bird would be okay. My action and this bird dropping dead seemed so disconnected. How is it that me standing far off could have caused this? I felt panicked and found the sparrow lying beneath the feeder. I picked it up, its head dropped alarmingly over the edge of my palm lifeless. The BB had pierced his throat, a small patch of blood where it entered. I was overcome by grief and remorse and shame for what I had done. Now, so many decades later, it still breaks my heart and evokes shame. It seemed like a good idea at the time until the consequence of my good idea lay in my hand. I put the BB gun away and don’t really recall what became of it.

One other somewhat similar incident involves one of my sons many years back. Vacationing for a few days with friends in Big Bear, California, we fished in and around the lake. My son, his first-time fishing, caught the only fish that day which was held in a netted bag placed in the water while all but my son continued to fish. He busied himself with checking on the fish to see that it was still alive or, I mistakenly thought to survey his conquest. At the end of our fishing experience, all spoke of how his catch would provide dinner. The group offered my son congratulatory pats on the back. At the dinner table, we discovered what we foolishly thought was a catfish, in fact, was a horrible tasting carp. It was awkward at the dinner table as everyone delicately pushed the fish around on their plates. Later that night, at bedtime I heard my son crying softly in bed. I had no idea what was going on until he was able to explain between sobs, it was the fish. He was devastated that a day of fishing should end so tragically. It wasn’t that it tasted poorly. He felt responsible for its death. It all seemed like such a good idea but we had not even considered such an outcome. He has been a vegan for the last 25 years.

We are, all of us, filled with good ideas but not all good ideas generate good outcomes. A good idea should bear the slings and arrows of a thorough review commensurate with its potential impact. If you believe in your idea, seek out the company of those who are able to help you discern whether it is impulse, misguided intuition, or inspired recognizing that no process will be perfect. Our ideas are like children; we give birth to them, nurture them, and learn to love as well as protect them. We introduce them to others with a great deal of pride. Yet, they are not children, merely ideas we have come to love as a personal act of creation. Hold them loose and allow them to stand on their own if they are able. Perhaps they will stand upright. Perhaps adjustments must be made. Perhaps they will simply wilt. If they do, brush them away rather than constantly trying to revive them. We are the generators of ideas…prolific creators. Novelty will always emerge from the ash heap of discarded ideas but only if you make room for them to bloom.

The illustration above is by Alexandra Tutu from my book, A YORKIE’S TALE.

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