The Grating Fallacy of “Idea Guys”

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you might have seen me engage in talk about the MacLeod Hierarchy from time to time in the comments with various posters. We’re referring to a concept where the denizens of a corporate organization fall into one of three categories: Losers, Clueless, and Sociopaths. It’s explained in delightful detail in one my favorite blog series of all time, but I’ll give you the tl;dr version here of what defines these groups, so that I can use the terms more easily in this post. I’m quoting this synopsis from Michael O. Church’s follow up analysis of the subject, which I also highly recommend. The names are inherently pejorative, which was probably a stylistic choice when picking them; none of these is inherently bad to be, from a moral or human standpoint (though one might argue that Clueless is the most embarrassing).

    Losers, who recognize that low-level employment is a losing deal, and therefore commit the minimum effort not to get fired.
    Clueless, who work as hard as they can but fail to understand the organization’s true nature and needs, and are destined for middle management.
    Sociopaths, who capture the surplus value generated by the Losers and Clueless. Destined for upper management.

At this point, I’ll forgive you if you’re just now returning to my blog after a lot of reading. If you’re a fan of corporate realpolitik, those are extremely engrossing series. I bring up these terms here to use as labels when it comes to people who are self styled “idea guys” (or gals, but I’m just going to use the male version for brevity for the rest of the post). I’m going to posit that there are generally two flavors of idea guy: the Loser version and the Clueless version. There is no Sociopath “idea guy” at all, but I’ll talk about that last.

What do I mean, exactly, when I say “idea guys?” Well, I’m not being as literal as saying “people who have ideas,” which would, frankly, be pretty obtuse. Everyone has ideas all day, every day. I’m referring to people who think that their essential value is wrapped up in their ideas, and specifically in ideas that they imagine to be unique. They see themselves as original, innovative and, ironically, people who “think outside the box” (ironic in the sense that someone would describe their originality using what has to be one of the top 10 most overused cliches of all time in the corporate world). Indeed, given their talent for creativity, they see an ideal division of labor in which they kick their feet up and drop pearls of their brilliance for lesser beings to gather and turn into mundane things such as execution, operations, construction, selling, and other ‘boring details’.

I Coulda Made Facebook

The Loser “idea guy” is the “coulda been a contender” archetype. If he’s a techie, he probably talks about what a bad programmer Mark Zuckerburg is and how he got lucky by being in the right place at the right time. The Loser could have just as easily written Facebook, and he has all kinds of other ideas like that too, if he could just catch a break. He might alternate between these types of lamentations and hitting up people for partnerships on ventures where he trades the killer idea for the execution part: “hey, I’ve got this idea for a phone app, and I just need someone to do the programming and all of those details.” MacLeod Losers generally strike a deal where they exchange autonomy for bare minimum effort, so execution isn’t their forte — they’d like to hit the “I’ve got an idea” lottery where they dream something up and everyone else takes care of the details of making sure their bank accounts grow by several zeroes.

We Need to Have a Facebook!

The Clueless “idea guy” is, frankly, a lot more comical (unless you’re reporting to him, in which case he’s borderline insufferable). In contrast to his Loser brethren with illusions of Facebook clones or cures for cancer, this fellow has rather small ideas that take the form of middling corporate strategy. He is a master of bikeshedding over what color the new logo for the Alpha project should be or whether the new promo materials should go out to 25 pilot customers or 30. Actually changing the color of the logo or mailing out the materials? Pff. That’s below his paygrade, newbie — he’s an idea guy who shows up 10 minutes late to meetings, makes the ‘important’ decisions, orders everyone around for a while, and promptly forgets about the whole thing.

Whereas the Loser “idea guy” views his schemes as a way to escape gentle wage slavery, the Clueless version is delighting in playing a part afforded to him by his status with the company, which is basically itself a function of waiting one’s turn. Future Clueless comes to the company, puts up with mid level managers ordering him to do menial tasks and showing up late to his meetings, and, like someone participating in any hazing ritual, relishes the day he’ll get to do it to someone else. “Idea guy” is perfect because it involves being “too important” to follow through on anything, personally, or even extend common courtesy and respect. It’s a vehicle for enjoying a position that allows for ordering people around and reminding everyone that people in overhead positions say jump, and they have to ask “how high?”

While it’s certainly possible to encounter a Clueless with ambitious ideas (perhaps a pet project of redoing the company website to look like Apple’s or something), they’re pretty uncommon, which makes sense when you think about it. After all, part of the fundamental condition of a Clueless is enough cognitive dissonance to believe that his position was obtained through merit rather than running out the clock, and trying to push a big idea to the players in the office above him is to be threatened with rejection and possibly even ridicule, so why bother? Micromanaging and demanding the removal of ducks is a much safer strategy for pleasant reinforcement of his position of power.

I’ll Create a Bubble and Sell This Company to Facebook

So what about the Sociopath “idea guy?” As I said, I don’t think this exists. It’s not that sociopaths don’t have ideas. I might argue that they’re the only ones that have ideas of significance in the corporation (losers may have excellent ideas, but they go nowhere without a sociopath sponsor and spin). But they certainly aren’t “idea guys.” Reason being that sociopaths know what matters. To re-appropriate a famous line Vince Lombardi would say to his Packers teams, Socipaths know that “execution isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

A Sociopath doesn’t really assign any pride to ideas, opting instead to evaluate them on merit and implement them when doing so is advantageous. If his ends are better served by letting you take the credit for his ideas, the Sociopath will do that. Alternatively, if his ends are better served by ripping off someone’s idea and doing that, he’ll do that too. No matter what the source of the idea, it’s simply a means to an end. It’s not his baby, and it’s not to be jealously guarded, since ideas are a dime a dozen, and there will be others.

Ideas, like paper or computers or projectors, are simply tools that aid in execution or even, perhaps, inspiration for improved execution. A Sociopath is a doer in every sense — a consummate pragmatist.

Winning the Race of Achievement

If idea guys come from the ranks of Losers and Clueless but it’s only the Sociopaths that capture and capitalize on excess value created, doesn’t this mean, cynically, that people who have great ideas are never the ones that profit? Well, no, I’d argue. Sociopaths have plenty of ideas — they just aren’t “idea guys.” Ideas are commonplace across all organizational strata and across all of life. Sociopaths are simply too pragmatic and busy to create some kind of trumped up persona centered around the remarkably ordinary phenomenon of having ideas; they’re not interested in dressing up as Edison or Einstein and turning their life into some kind of extended Halloween.

Pulling back from the MacLeod categorization, it’s sufficient to say that what turns the motor of the world is commitment, work, dedication, execution, and frankly a bit of luck (though I’d argue for the adage that luck is largely a measure of time and being prepared). Sure, ideas are a part of that, but so are oxygen and conversations. They’re such ubiquitous parts of all that we do that they’re not worth focusing on or even mentioning.

In Macbeth, the title character issues a fatalistic soliloquy that describes life as “a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” This sentiment captures the impact in a group or meeting by a self-styled “idea guy,” particularly of the Clueless variety. He charges in, makes a lot of bold claims, proclamations, and predictions, and then toddles on out, altering the landscape not at all.

If you want to make your impact felt, I’d say there’s another quote that’s appropriate, popularized in American culture by Teddy Roosevelt: “walk softly and carry a big stick.” Don’t declare yourself victorious at the starting line because you dreamed up some kind of idea. Assume that ideas, even great ones, are nothing but your entry fee to the race, expected of every runner. Let them be your grit and inspiration as you labor your way through the course. But realize that the actual, boring mechanics of running — the execution — is what wins you the race rather than whatever inspirational poster saying occurs to you as you plod along.

  • jasonadel

    Excellent addition to the MacLeod Hiearchy body of work! This analysis rings true for almost every corporatacry I’ve had the misfortune to be a part of for the last 15 years.

  • http://www.daedtech.com/blog Erik Dietrich

    Thanks, I appreciate that! It’s a subject that I’ve enjoyed reading about, so it’s nice to hear an opinion that I’m not dropping the ball when discussing it :)