The Value of Ideas

We like to think this time in human history is the age of ideas. Now, more than ever before, society values ideas.

Well, perhaps not so much.

Ideas, creativity, new thinking, do not appear to be valued in their own right. Ideas are valued only when they are combined with something else, some other skill or talent or event or product that converts an idea – by itself of no value – into something we consider important or worthwhile.

Consider the following example. John has an idea for a new cellphone app. The app, if it ever existed, would be sensational, something desired by everyone. John has even thought through the implications of the idea. He knows who will want the app, and why, and he understands what functions will be needed to make it successful. It is a fully fledged idea. It is not just something that popped into his mind in the shower one morning.

John’s idea has no value by itself. He can’t protect it legally. If he tells anyone about it, they can do whatever they want with it, and ignore his generation of the initial idea. He can’t get financing for it, because to a financier he actually has nothing. It is a truism that, with limited exceptions, ideas cannot be funded (well, at least since the dot-com explosion of 1999/2000).

What he can do is marry his idea to something else, and the combination will have value. In the simplest case, he can, either alone or through someone else, actually build a version of the new app. Now he does have something of value, something he can protect and finance. However, what is of value is the app, not the idea that produced the app. Even though the creativity of conceptualizing the app is really what drives its value, it is the more pedestrian and commonplace skill of writing the code to implement the idea that truly makes it something of worth.

Alternatively, he can write about the idea. If he is talented enough, he can write a science fiction story about the new product that he has conceived. Many creative ideas are turned into value this way, through becoming the subject of written work. Not just science fiction, but many areas of writing – fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, screenplays, etc. – are really ways of converting an idea into something of value. But there again, while the real value is driven by the idea, the thing that is valued is the more basic skill of writing. The idea – no matter how good – will have value only if the craftsmanship of the writing is good.

Another way to turn his idea into value is to convert it into a business. He can write a solid business plan, showing how building the product will produce massive amounts of wealth for the successful entrepreneur. By so doing, he can obtain a partner to turn the app into a product. However, the value here is in the solid business plan. The idea itself again drives the value, but the value is in good research, deft presentation, and spreadsheets showing blossoming profits. These prosaic business planning skills are, sad to say, commonplace, but without that layer the original idea remains valueless.

The cellphone app is only one example. Take any really good idea: a solution to a problem, a philosophical construct, a conceptualization of the universe, an insight into human nature, a product for the marketplace. Whatever. Try to imagine what value it has at the point where it is still just an idea. Answer. None.

This is not news, by the way. Seth Godin, the self-styled marketing guru, famously had his students post 999 ideas online (http://www.sixmonthmba.com/2009/02/999ideas.html ), just to show that ideas are a dime a dozen (or less). Steve Jobs was known to declare that the problem with most businesses is thinking that having a cool idea was 90% of the battle. In his view, an idea is nothing without execution (http://www.businessinsider.com/steve-jobs-ideas-2014-3). In the literature on entrepreneurship, the mantra that ideas have no value pops up again and again.

We have many ways we do value ideas, but in every case the thing that is valued is not the idea itself, but the implementation of that idea in some other, less creative, less conceptual, way.

The app example shows some of the ways we do that: write about it, make it a business plan, build the product. There are other ways, as well.

We can teach the idea to others. Some parts of academia are populated by those who have ideas, and talk about them, but don’t implement them. To succeed in that area, though, the primary skill is not creativity. The skills are those of research, and essay writing, and analysis of the work of others. Also, of course, academia will generally only give you the opportunity to be creative in a narrow area of specialty. A broader skill in generating ideas doesn’t work here. No-one cares that the nuclear physicist has a great idea for how to solve the city’s transit problems.

Another way to convert ideas to value is politics. Although it is perhaps true that most politicians are not driven by ideas, at least some are. Good ideas are not the path to political success, of course. Networking, relentless energy, willingness to compromise, and a great memory are the skills needed in politics. Ideas are not on the list. They are not the value you bring to the table.

What about creating an organization? Is that a route to being a pure ideas person? Answer, again no. An organization will not flourish because of its good ideas alone. It will flourish because of the focus, and attention to structure and detail, of its founder and driving force.

In Britain there is an organization called The Institute of Ideas (www.instituteofideas.com), which sounds pretty good, right? Undoubtedly it is, but as an organization it is not actually about generating ideas. It is in fact about providing a vehicle for other people to debate ideas. The people behind the organization don’t spend their days coming up with cool ideas. They spend their days organizing conferences and events, making sure that the coffee is served on time and the guest speaker has the right kind of microphone and AV equipment.

The people who actually generate the ideas for The Institute of Ideas have turned their ideas into value because they are academics, or writers, or politicians, or entrepreneurs, or venture capitalists. In each case, they have married ideas to other, less exciting, but more practical skills to generate something of value.

Australia has the Day of Ideas, sponsored by an organization called the Foundation for Young Australians (http://innovationnation.fya.org.au/about/events/). The organization, supported by a number of large companies, promotes a series of local Day of Ideas sessions throughout the country. If you look at the agendas for each, it is in every case not about ideas, but about how ideas have been converted into something valuable: formation of a new business, creation of a new product, etc. The people running the organization are not spending their time generating ideas; they are event planning. The people participating in the events are not talking about ideas; they are talking about products and services.

I could go on. The point is really a simple one. Ideas by themselves don’t have value. They only have value when you do something with them. In effect, ideas only create the potential for value.

Of course, I don’t really believe that ideas have no value. Of course they have value, in an intrinsic but still important way. Ideas are an essential part of humanness, and the societies that humans create. We have a need to be creative, and generate ideas. It is part of human existence. Creativity creates chemical changes in our brains that make us feel good. Ideas make us smile; they make us happy.

Our society, however, is more practical than that. It’s all very nice to have lots of good ideas. We even think of the best and most creative idea-generators as more interesting than other people. We want to spend time with them, because they stimulate our own creativity.

But when we assign real value to things in society, we place the emphasis on doing, not thinking. How many times have you heard the phrase “talk is cheap”? How many times have you heard someone referred to as “all talk and no action”? How many times have you heard someone’s great ideas, but immediately thought “that will never actually happen”? While we may recognize that some people are good at creative idea generation, we don’t see that activity as worthwhile in and of itself. Maybe we think it’s too easy to have ideas. Maybe we think that value has to require hard work. “Just” having a good idea isn’t enough. If you don’t have to work at it, then it is nothing.

Ideas are not nothing, but this sense that a bare idea is valueless permeates our society. I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing, or a bad thing. What it means, though, is that we value the skill of the programmer – someone who does things – whether or not that skill is tied to creative thinking. Conversely, we don’t value the skill of the creative thinker, unless it is tied to the skill of programming, or some other practical skill.

Perhaps we don’t think of creative thinking as a skill by itself. If so, I suspect our notion of value is, at least to some extent, skewed in the wrong direction. We see creativity as an adjective modifying other, “real” skills, rather than as an independent skill in its own right. This should not be true. It doesn’t actually make sense. It should be possible for our society to value the ability to generate great ideas.

But here I hit a wall. At this point in the analysis, I would desperately like to propose a plausible future in which we do value the ability to generate high quality ideas. Surely the ability to come up with a conceptual answer to a problem can be perceived – in some imaginary society, organization, or business – to be at least as valuable as the ability to write the code implementing that answer?

I can’t visualize that imaginary society in the future, nor can I find an example in history of such a society. I’ve tried both. Every time I look at a past example, it can be shown that the idea generation component doesn’t have an independent value. Every construct I formulate to achieve that in the future always resolves into valuing ideas only in tandem with something else. There is never – in the past or in any future I can conceive – a defined role for the generator of great ideas.

Perhaps this article is the first of a series.

Jay Shepherd, January 9, 2016

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About Jay Shepherd

Jay Shepherd is a Toronto lawyer and writer. This site includes a series on energy issues, plus some random non-fiction on matters of interest. More important, it includes the Lives series, which bridge the gap between fiction and non-fiction, and now some short stories. Fiction is where I'm going, but not everything you want to say fits one form. I am not spending any time actively marketing what I write, but by all means feel free to share if you think others would enjoy reading this stuff.
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