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

In the very beginning all we have is an idea.

So how should we handle these?

Maybe we need to treat them mean?

There is an unsettling scene at the beginning of the movie 300 that describes how Spartans treated young boys and in the process taught them to be fierce fighters:1

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.2 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.

Eventually our idea has 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.

On the other hand…

Consider this, from Jony Ive’s wonderful eulogy to Steve Jobs: 3

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.

It’s 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 nervous about sharing our own ideas is we are uncertain, and nervous that others will think them silly, or shoot them down, or just be generally unimpressed.

In order to generate ideas effectively a teams needs to treat them like newborn babies, rather than something to be quickly beaten up or dismissed, something delicate given time to form while everybody is still being gentle.

But then, before any 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.

Choosing the right time to make that switch is the difference between a really great product team and the rest of us mere mortals.

  1. 300, directed by Zack Snyder. ↩︎

  2. Agoge, Wikipedia↩︎

  3. Jonathan Ive Tribute Speech to Steve Jobs at Apple Memorial, YouTube↩︎

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