Taking Risks with Ideas

Taking Risks with Ideas


A vicar, a senior police officer and a polar explorer walk into a bar.  How did they get there? 

No, reader, this is not the opening line of a bad joke.  It is a question I have been pondering, which made me think about the British American Project.  Of all of the groups I have joined over the years, I would say that this one has led to some of the most interesting and unusual conversations and relationships.  Each year, up to 24 Americans and the same number of Brits are selected from a wide range of industries and backgrounds.  Hence, the policeman and vicar.  We meet at annual conferences (taking place on alternating sides of the pond) and at regular events.    But how, you may ask are these people selected?  The project lists a number of things which it looks for, including “an interest in the transatlantic dimension of the project” and in the “views of others”.  At the top of this list is another so-called ‘quality’; 

The ability to take risks with ideas.

“Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome.”  

So said Samuel Johnson, who would have been appalled at the way in which so many projects are shot down before they have ever been given the chance to fly.  Every day I see people who seem to  think that the clever thing to do is to spot a flaw in a plan or project and condense that insight into a Tweet-sized bullet.  Not a fatal flaw, you understand.  Any flaw will do.  Any aspect which allows the sniper to appear smart or knowledgeable.   

I read recently about the latest CEO Summit, hosted by the Times.  What inspired me most were some of the ‘big ideas’ shared the guests.  From Lord Wolfson calling for a motorway between Oxford and Cambridge to the Chief Executive of Vodafone suggesting tax-breaks for students from science backgrounds.  They were taking risks with ideas.  They were prepared to take some flack, to explore new areas, to evolve their thinking. 

This is something which is badly lacking in politics.  The thought of the media and, let’s be honest, the public, lying in wait to tear apart an idea.  Because too often these things are framed (or interpreted) as perfectly formed project proposals, to ‘test the water’.  Politicans, like the rest of us, need spaces to think, to create and, yes, to dream.  I find the idea that this can only happen in secret pretty depressing.

What techniques have you found for enabling people to take risks with ideas? 

Is there an opportunity for anonymous forums, or is that a red herring? 

Don’t you sometimes want a space to test half-formed ideas and thoughts which you might not feel confident ‘standing by’ forever more, especially if you change your mind, then risk being forced to stand by an earlier version of your thinking. 

Perhaps we need to create spaces and times which make a deliberate attempt to call for ‘Outrageous Ideas’ which challenge the status quo.  “Paying kids to go to school”.  “Flipping a student loan into an enterprise loan”.  Ideas which everybody knows have set out to get people thinking and push the limits.

David Ogilvy said that “the best ideas come as jokes.  Make your thinking as funny as possible.” 

If you are interested in making things happen, you should be interested in ways to get people sharing their best ideas, in ways that mean they are not living with the ongoing paranoia of being quoted out of context, or shot down at stage one. 

In Ogilvy’s words, our thinking needs to be far funnier.  The consequences of keeping things buttoned-up are far from amusing.

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