Expediency is Not An Idea

15 December 2009 John Hunt

In an extract from his new book The Art of the Idea, author John Hunt addresses why a good idea should never be compromised.

It’s difficult to have an idea in an environment that stands for nothing. The quality of the idea is never discussed, but rather how much the implementation could upset those surrounding it. Everyone applauds the thinking while simultaneously creating an escape hatch for themselves concerning the execution.

New thinking usually needs the involvement of others; this often leads to the debate about how difficult "they" are. The suggestion is made that the idea be toned down a little so "they" might find it more palatable. Maybe it should be held back for six months until "they" are in a better frame of mind.

Very few ideas survive the third person trap. If you’re not careful, expediency quickly dusts everything. In this world Romeo and Juliet would have to skip excitedly into the sunset, because most people like happy endings. Taking the path of least resistance is the surest way to celebrate what you’ve already achieved and stay a slave to the ordinary. Expediency is so handy because the more you use it, the more it sounds like good, old-fashioned common sense.

"The middle ground is always the most dangerous place to be. No-man’s land is not safe territory."

Besides, you’ve got the courage—it’s the other guys you’re worried about. "They" just don’t get it. Expediency wins so often because the obvious is overlooked. If a new idea is worth anything, it should make everyone a little nervous. It will be tougher to sell. But these are all good signs. It means the idea carries change within it. And part of our makeup as a species is to push back hard before we accept anything new.

The problem comes when that push-back is used as an excuse to perpetually defer doing anything new. It’s what "they" want. Fresh thinking needs a champion and a group with guts surrounding it. The opposite of expediency is tenacity. The first test of an idea is the level of commitment to it.

"They" aren’t the problem. Others will embrace and celebrate the new even more if they can sense the courage it took to get there. And although this runs counter to much conventional wisdom and business practice, I’ve never seen an idea brownnosed to greatness.

Expediency is so liberally applied because of its ability to offend no one. It allows you to take three steps forward, then three steps backward, and congratulate all those concerned on the progress made. In-the-moment expediency is your friend. Meetings are less tense and everyone leaves claiming they’re comfortable.

In the longer term, though, expediency is extremely corrosive to ideas. It allows you to marinate in the mediocre. Everyone is content, but no one is ecstatic. The more you use it, the more it offers a false sense of security. Why change? Everything seems okay. But, if you stay middle of the road, you will eventually be run over both ways. The middle ground is always the most dangerous place to be. No-man’s land is not safe territory.

Unfortunately, it soon becomes obvious that if you stand for nothing, then that’s also what you attract. For ideas to work, they have to bounce off something of substance. If they are just walked through one compromise after another, they lose their power.

When things are going well, taking no risks seems like a very smart strategy. When times are tough, though, you’ll notice expediency, which is meant to create all those happy, smiley faces, is suddenly wearing a smirk.

The Art of the Idea by John Hunt, is published by powerHouse Books for $24.95.