The 4 kinds of pushback that generate more powerful ideas

Being hard on ideas makes them better. Great ideas are clear, brief, and not boring. Don’t stop until you get there.

argument clinicFor my last 8 years at Forrester — at least since I started working on my first book — I’ve had a sort of smartass attitude towards the world. If you ask people what I was like to work with, “nice” would not have topped the list of adjectives. But “smart” and “honest” would be in there. My title was SVP Idea Development, and colleagues (and clients) frequently brought me ideas. (These were market-facing ideas — that is, content — not operational ideas.) My response was one of the following:

  • That’s not interesting. This was my response to warmed-over, stolen, or obvious ideas. The proposer often responded by trying to make the idea more interesting, which led to a more original version of the idea. If you’re boring someone, you’re not there yet.
  • It sounds like the key to your idea is actually xxxI look for the element of the idea that seems edgy and resonant and original. People have trouble articulating what’s powerful about their ideas, separating the interesting from the ordinary. I was amazed at how often people would embrace my suggestions for their ideas — “You’re right, that’s what I really mean!” They’d leave energized, and often come back later with improved versions of their concept. Be open to new angles that reveal your idea better.
  • I don’t understand. If you confuse me, I’ll say so proudly. Most people aren’t secure enough to say they don’t understand. But when you say you don’t get it, an amazing thing happens — people get frustrated, and then simplify their concept. This can lead to a lot more powerful presentation of the idea. If people don’t get your idea, simplify.
  • You’re really onto something. Some ideas are just great. When I hear one of these, I get excited. This leads to dialogue, which leads to fleshing out and improving the idea. Even great ideas can get better.

An amazing thing happened in these interactions. The harder I pushed back, the more people valued the process, and the better the results.

Being hard on people is mean and unfair. But being hard on ideas is what makes them better.

Bullshit is the pollution that keeps ideas from shining. You could say that my job was to develop ideas by rejecting bullshit. That’s what energized me at Forrester, and it still does. That’s what I’m doing now.

This blog is not just a critique. I end each post with a brief, clear, and interesting way to say something. Remove the bullshit, and the ideas shine. Like all waste removal jobs, it’s not a pretty process. But I enjoy it, and I value the results.

Please send me the bullshit your company is putting out to its customers and employees. I’d love to make it shorter, clearer, and less boring. I love idea development.

Image source: http://imgur.com/gallery/sisEl

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  1. In my past, I was sometimes tough on people when I mean to be tough on ideas.

    I have become a regular user of the Socratic method (“Maybe your idea is better than I think it is. Can it be expressed without jargon? How would you explain it to someone who had never heard of your industry?”), and it works surprisingly well.

    Another technique I have found useful is random stimuli. I will deliberately misunderstand a very weak idea in a way that I *know* is an absolute non-sequiter. For example, “Oh that’s really interesting! Do you mean that mobile ads should only be served to a user when the GPS data says they are walking fast?”

    People don’t expect to have their ideas so completely misunderstood, or to have someone be so excited about a non-sequiter. They want it all to make sense, so the random non-sequiter can spark a genuinely good idea that neither of us might have imagined on our own.

    In brief, sometimes it’s easier to create a more powerful idea by responding with better questions or more bizarre answers.

  2. As someone who teaches English and appreciates your mission to avoid bullshit and present high-value, concise ideas through words, let me tell you: “pushback” is jargon. It is an avoidance of being clear; the term is rejection. We all know that some people have issues with handling rejection, but we are adults who need to buck up and handle it. “Pushback” is what children do and it is neither professional, or adult language. It sounds like you are either mollycoddling people who can’t handle rejection or actually shoving them physically. If you really want to remove the bullshit, you should start with removing the infantile “pushback” from your vocabulary.