Being Spartan with Ideas

Do you leave your ideas to fend for themselves in the wild or keep them in a safe place?

Here is a little idea I’ve been growing.
It doesn’t have a roof yet.

— Elizabeth Gilbert

How should we handle new ideas?

Maybe we treat them mean?

There is an unsettling scene at the beginning of the movie 300 that describes how Sparta treated young boys, once they reached a certain age, and in the process taught them to be fierce fighters:

At age 7, as is customary in Sparta the boy was taken from his mother and plunged into a world of violence. Manufactured by 300 years of Spartan warrior society to create the finest soldiers the world has ever known. The agoge, as it’s called, forces the boy to fight. Starves them, forces them to steal and if necessary, to kill. By rod and lash the boy was punished, taught to show no pain, no mercy. Constantly tested, tossed into the wild. Left to pit his wits and will against nature’s fury. It was his initiation, his time in the wild for he would return to his people a Spartan or not at all.

At some point our idea is going to have to stand up to the world and at that point either it’s good enough or it’s not. We can hide it away or put it in a safe place, but that only defers the inevitable. Isn’t it better to find out sooner rather than later, so if it’s not going to be a winner we can move onto the next idea?

On the other hand…

Consider this, from Jony Ive’s eulogy to Steve Jobs:

Steve used to say to me (and he used to say this a lot), “Hey Jony, here’s a dopey idea.” And sometimes they were — really dopey. Sometimes they were truly dreadful. But sometimes they took the air from the room, and they left us both completely silent. Bold, crazy, magnificent ideas. Or quiet, simple ones which, in their subtlety, their detail, were utterly profound.
And just as Steve loved ideas, and loved making stuff, he treated the process of creativity with a rare and a wonderful reverence. Better than anyone, he understood that while ideas ultimately can be so powerful, they begin as fragile, barely formed thoughts, so easily missed, so easily compromised, so easily just squished.

Isn’t it a little bit amazing to imagine the iPod or iPhone as a dopey half-formed idea, and think about the conversation that day in their lab as they teased it out and allowed it to take shape.

The reason we are often so nervous about sharing our own ideas is that we are uncertain, and embarrassed that others will think them silly, or shoot them down, or just be generally unimpressed.

If we’re going to be part of a team that generates ideas we need to actively organise ourselves so that ideas are treated as if they were newborn babies, rather than something to be quickly judged or dismissed, something new to be given a bit of time to form while everybody is still being gentle.

But then, before ideas get too comfortable, we need to flip into Spartan mode and treat them with a harsh unsentimental brutality so that only the fittest survive and we don’t waste too many cycles otherwise.

Finding this balance and choosing the right time to make that switch is probably the difference between a really great product team and the rest of us mere mortals.

Sadly I don’t have a magic formula to follow, other than doing it, getting it wrong a few times and then adjusting the next time based on those scars.

Credit to Koz for first making this link between the Spartan childhood experience and filtering product ideas, at least to me.

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