Is There Such Thing as a Dumb Idea? (KS Lesson #263)

7 February 2019 | 22 Comments

In my job before running Stonemaier Games, one of my responsibilities was to run a big fundraising event for a nonprofit. As many of these events do, it included a silent auction and an event chairperson.

I would work very closely with the chairperson for 6+ months leading up to the event. One year, we were just a few weeks away from the event, and things seemed to be going well. I got an e-mail from the chairperson with some ideas about the organization of auction items, and I replied in agreement of some and counterpoints to others.

The next day, the chairperson replied to say that she was tired of hearing “no” from me, and she was stepping down as the chairperson.

I was shocked. I reread my email multiple times to confirm that it contained a healthy dose of affirmations, and it did. I shared it with my organization’s director of development, and she agreed; however, she brought up a great point: Perhaps it wasn’t this specific email, but rather a culmination of rejections to someone who was accustomed to hearing “yes” from most people in her life.

She was absolutely right. Over the last 5 months, I had said “no, but” more times than “yes, and.” The result was a chairperson who didn’t feel valued, especially in the face of her significant contributions of time, talent, and money. Without realizing it, I made her feel like some of her ideas were dumb.

Our development director managed to salvage the relationship (accompanied by many apologies from me), but in many ways, it was too late. The chairperson barely spoke to me for the rest of the planning period, and she and her family noticeably decreased their involvement in the organization after the event.

Why am I writing about this today? Well, a few days ago a member of the Los Angeles Rams organization, Zac Taylor, was hired to be the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. I was reading an article about this, and near the end of it Taylor mentioned something about Rams coach Sean McVay that stood out to me:

“Everyone felt valued. No idea was dumb or too great to be a part of the plan,” he said. “Everybody felt like their role was important. It’s easy to come to work every single day when you feel like there is value to what you are doing and you feel appreciated so you try to establish that same culture there.”

It struck me partially because it’s not the type of thing I’d expect to hear about an NFL coach. Normally people talk about how prepared coaches are, how they expect excellence from their players, and how they see the game in a special way. It’s unusual for someone to talk about a football coach in regards to how they collaborate and value their staff and players.

Not only did it dig up the memory of the fundraising event, but it also made me realize two things about myself and other creators/entrepreneurs:

  1. When I was a Kickstarter creator, I said “no” to backers all the time. In fact, I have several blog entries about how to say no (here and here). While I still believe it’s important for creators to feel comfortable saying no, I think I should have focused less on the necessity of rejection and more on valuing backers by creating a culture of no dumb ideas. That isn’t to say there aren’t ideas that would be historically bad if I implemented them; however, I don’t want to ever make backers, customers, clients, and readers feel dumb. Because the minute I do that in any conversation, either the engagement ends or it turns into an argument.
  2. Now as someone who runs a company and (even though I’m the only full-time employee) works with a lot of different people connected to Stonemaier Games, I still focus on my response to ideas (yes/no) way more than I focus on encouraging more and better ideas. I think I might be unintentionally making people feel dumb all the time in the way I respond to them.

I really want to get better at this. Awareness is one thing, but actually improving is quite another. While I haven’t seen Sean McVay’s tactics in action behind the scenes, there are a few minutes in the Daniel Pink video below (19:24) when I can see how he encourages the flow of ideas. I want to emulate this.

What do you think about this? As a creator or entrepreneur, how do you create a culture of collaboration? How do you not make people feel dumb even if you don’t implement their idea? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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22 Comments on “Is There Such Thing as a Dumb Idea? (KS Lesson #263)

  1. How to create collaboration? Try not blaming yourself when collaboration doesn’t happen. Every person who shares ideas needs to take responsibility for the dumb parts, which they discover when their idea triggers feedback that doesn’t put them down. If they can see a putdown, they are responsible for surfacing it then and there, since most perceived putdowns are unintentional, and therefore quickly, though not always easily, corrected.

    How to not make people feel dumb? If you don’t blame yourself, you don’t have this problem. If you do it accidentally, you can take responsibility for it and fix your side of it. But this is hazardous. People who blame you for feeling dumb want you to fix a lot more than just that instance. Thus, pick the right people, if you can. Starting one’s own company, or moving to another company, is often an expression of the desire to avoid being dependent on others who can’t take “no” type of feedback.

  2. This is a useful post. I tend to be a perfectionist and that comes out as critical sometimes. If I show my wife some test art for a game I’m working on I have a hard time when I disagree with her opinions but I’m thinking I’m focusing too much on the yes/no as you say.

  3. Has this approach changed your mindset with regards to playtesters? II feel like they are always throwing out ideas and I do my best to make them feel valued, but it is difficult sometimes. Especially when they suggest things that I have already tried and insist that I try them again. Nevertheless, I am super grateful to all of my playtesters and do my best to convey that to them (even when I disagree with them).

    1. Brent: I can definitely relate to that, though over time I’ve trained our playtesters (particularly our blind playtesters) to tell me what happened and how it made them feel instead of jumping to a solution. While I’m open to their ideas, I can’t solve a problem if I don’t know what the problem is.

  4. To echo others, this is an excellent lesson for all leadership roles, not just KS (which I’d never really thought of as a leadership role- if it is it’s one with 100s of people you’re leading, who are also paying you and publically commenting on what you’re doing). In education the best leaders I’ve had (who I tried to emulate) were able to make everyone contribute and try new things, and through reframing and drawing out good features were able to guide people down the correct route whilst making them feel valuable. That’s a resoundingly difficult thing ot do though.

  5. A great topic, not only in business but everyday interactions. Agree with so many of the comments here! Great ideas, creativity, and ingenuity can come from anyone. We’re all capable of greatness.

    As a business owner, I think it starts with remaining grateful for the engagement others offer. Thanking people for their ideas. And being transparent about which ideas may be within reach and which ideas may take some further thought / planning to implement or that may not be a good fit.

    In the end, I think most good people realize when they offer a suggestion, it’s just that. An idea that MAY turn out to be a gift – in the short or long-term. What makes a big difference is how entrepreneurs express appreciation for the input.


  6. Jamey,

    Actually, a video would work as a great proxy for a live conversation as it conveys a great deal more in terms of body language and facial cues .

  7. Part of the issue stems from the medium with which you have the opportunity to communicate. The coach you mentioned probably rarely, if ever, communicates through e-mail. By contrast, you probably use email for 90% of your communication. As a developer and playtester for you and other designers, I provide feedback but there’s typically not the time for the designer to address each and every “good” idea with them.

    I’ve led small and large teams, and one if the most important lessons I learned was from an old colonel who said, “look at those to whom you speak and let them see you.. the impact is profound.” I still write a lot of emails, as you do, but with Skype and Facebook messenger video calls, when I want to have more than an informational exchange, I’ll always prefer face to face. It seems to heighten the “yes” and mitigate the negative effects of “no.”

    1. That’s a great observation, Joe. Do you think it’s important for those conversations to always be live? Or does it have a similar impact to record a quick video and send it them (if your schedules aren’t linking up)?

  8. Great article on your personal journey Jamey. Just don’t be too hard on yourself as I thought you were a great boss!

  9. I used to work a PR agency that would always wrap up brainstorms with the “idea that would get you fired.” Why? Because sometimes an idea of pure genius comes out of what you think is a stupid or far-out, way-too-edgy concept. And by outright granting permission to say bad ideas, suddenly the floodgates are opened. You never know what you’re going to get out of that process!

  10. Over the decades of my working life, I have been self-employed more often than not. And, then and now, that means two things: being a boss and being a decision maker.
    Unfortunately, like 98.6% of all males (I suppose), that really boils down to just one thing: having the guts / determination / and, well, the stones to never back down in a fight, that is, in the market place (You gotta make a living, right?)

    But, when that “fight-fight-fight”, “struggle-to-stay-on-top” attitude affects your relationship with your partners, your employees, and even your customers / clients — it’s really time to cool it.

    So, back to the premise, what do you do to engender cooperation, collaboration, and mutual trust and respect? — Isn’t that what we’re asking for here? Sure it is. Trust and respect in the workplace for ourselves and the ability to mete it out as well as to receive it.

    And the silver bullet? That one sure thing that makes this possible for everyone? Well, for me, it has always been (after I discovered this about myself) the value of genuine praise.

    Think about it, Can’t you say something good about even the worst of ideas? Well, maybe not in the heat of the moment but at least 1). the person made a suggestion, 2). they braved your wrath by presenting a weak idea, and 3). they probably have some good reason for not coming up with a better one even if they didn’t say so.

    Couldn’t you thank them for their contribution – or pattern of contributions (if this happens a lot over time) – and accept one of their ideas once in a while? Maybe the knowledge that “yeah, that little idea right there was mine — go on now, pat me on the back, it’s okay” will go farther than anything else you could ever say or do.

    Not sure if this helps, but it has helped me. For a long, long time.

    Don — Black Harbor Games

  11. This is such an important skill for a Kickstarter creator. When a backer suggests something, they usually just want to feel like you have acknowledged it and will keep it under consideration. I’ve found that’s all you have to tell them. Even if you think it’s a “bad idea,” you at least considered it long enough to decide it wasn’t something you want to implement, so you can tell them that, “thanks for the suggestion, we’ll keep it in mind as an option.”

    As a counter-point, I remember one backer in a previous campaign gave some feedback in a post-campaign poll about what we could have done better that stuck out to me and it was something like: “It felt like you were giving into backer ideas too much. You should get a backbone and just stand your ground.” It just goes to show that it’s a delicate balance between showing confidence in your product/approach and making your backers feel valued and acknowledged.

    1. Brian: That’s a really great point about the fine line about encouraging ideas (but showing people how much thought, time, and effort have gone into what you currently have) and conveying too much flexibility (which can be misinterpreted as a lack of vision).

  12. We hear persistence is an admirable virtue of an entrepreneur, and a designer. It might be more difficult for people with that virtue to accept rejection without first being persistent. We need to work on that and accept the rejection first time ;)

  13. Isn’t the whole idea of brainstorming to get as many ideas as possible, filter them and keep the best ones? So, let them propose10 ideas, it may result in 1 good point. If said person only had the option to give one idea, it wouldn’t necessarily be the best one. Of course that applies to a multitude of people, you work alone (but council many…?)

    1. Absolutely, Harry! It’s just that I’m not always in brainstorming mode–sometimes I just want an answer instead of more ideas and questions. :) But I think I need to maintain that brainstorming mentality more often, just to encourage that type of communication.

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