Grand Ideas Are Solitary, Execution is Collective

I realize my title will tweak some people’s philosophical sensibilities. Too bad. If you don’t like where this post goes, you can write your own. What I’ll try to convey today is my experience with ambitious ideas in the workplace and how they are executed.

“If it isn’t for the writing, we’ve got nothing. Writers are the most important people in Hollywood. And we must never let them know it.”
–Irving Thalberg

Why would a post about ideas tweak, irritate, or even anger others? Mostly it comes from conflicting views of how human history works and what’s important about it.

There are those who believe in the “great man” or “strong personality” view of history: some believe that great and impressive human actions, from nation-building to religions to great works of art are solely or primarily the result of remarkable individuals who bend the elements, levers of government, or human emotions to their personal will to change history.

There are others who take the other extreme view: that individuals are essentially unimportant and that great deeds are only accomplished through collective action, inevitable social forces, or even vaguer forces like fate or destiny.

In the workplace, reality usually lands somewhere in between these two extremes. It’s been my experience that great ideas, plans, or projects are the result of one individual thinking very hard about one particular problem and applying a unique solution or set of solutions to solving it. Think of new products or initiatives, from airplanes to consumer products to marketing campaigns to large, bold government initiatives. They might have multiple sources leading into the solution, but one person did the thinking to combine what was known and apply them in a new way. This is my inner individualist declaring, boldly, that only very rarely do great single ideas come out of a committee.

But but but but! I hear my group-oriented friends protest…large ideas require lots of people to make them work well. And here, yes, I agree. Committees and large teams and supporters are needed when big ideas have lots of moving parts to bring into reality. It was one thing for John F. Kennedy to say (it wasn’t his idea, but he gets the credit) we ought to put a man on the moon before the decade is out. It’s another to execute that grand idea. If you want to get an ambitious idea executed, you need to have a group of specialists who can make it happen as well as your own set of skills that will reach and inspire others enough to want to share and follow it.

And again my individualist friends will protest: but what about great works of art? Literature? Architecture? Philosophy? That large group of people would have nothing to execute if the lone genius didn’t come up with the bright idea. I agree with this, too, and I don’t think I’m contradicting myself on this. Obviously, I lean toward believing in the importance of great thinkers to solve the problems of the world. However, I don’t believe they can get their ideas enacted without the concerted, willing participation of a great many others. I happen to be one of those people who pays his bills by executing the grand ideas of others. I don’t resent this position in life. I’ve gotten to observe some brilliant, dynamic thinkers in action. On the other hand, I’ve also had a great time working on teams executing someone else’s plan.

What does this have to do with technical writing? I will say only this: how you perceive the world can affect where and how you work. Consider this when you’re job hunting. Do you want to be the lone genius or someone working for the lone genius?

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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