The CEO of my prior company used to say there were two kinds of people: those who are excited by the possibilities of a new idea, and those who react by pointing out the problems of said new idea.
He preferred the former type, and I do too. Brand new ideas are fragile things.
If put under too much scrutiny, too soon, ideas dissolve before they can crystalize into something stable. I'm all for realistically assessing costs and risks, but if it's your job to bring new ideas to life, you need enthusiastic people at the very beginning.
When I think about my favorite people whom I've worked with in my career, the common thread across all of them has been their eagerness to ponder new ideas before thinking about why they won't work.
Those are the people with whom I could spend all day in a conference room, and leave feeling energized rather than depleted.
As a product manager, my job is identifying the right problems to solve and arranging the pieces to build solutions.
I need to work with people who enjoy new ideas. Yet, I've found that so many really smart people have their optimism coached (or beaten) out of them during their careers.
Two reasons for this stick out to me:
First, it's easy to get jaded after a project goes off the rails or a new product tanks.
After you've seen a bunch of new initiatives kick off with fanfare only to fizzle later, it's easy to lose faith in newness.
Even success can sometimes still be scarring if the costs or efforts required were dramatically underestimated.
I've found that so many really smart people have their optimism coached (or beaten) out of them.
Secondly, why people become pessimistic about new ideas is what I call "Shiny Object Syndrome."
Working for leaders who can't stay the course, or who don't finish things because they're constantly distracted by some new idea is maddening.
That experience understandably dampens those leaders' teams' enthusiasm for bold, new ideas.
The Downside Of Seeing The Downside
The reason why you'll find a hundred different versions of Steve Job's admonition that “focus is about saying no” is because it's good business advice.
By the time most people reach middle management, they've already picked up plenty of scars from misadventures along the way and often don't have a problem saying “no."
When you're young, you're generally implementing other peoples' ideas. Being a junior employee, you experience the painful aspects of change without sharing as much in the upside.
It may not take long before you start reacting to any new initiatives by thinking about all the potential problems you may face. Normal response? Yes. But that brand of pessimism hurts your career.
Managers need people who will spot potential problems, but they need boldness too.
Innovation means taking risks, and for many leaders, that's what makes their jobs enjoyable. The opportunity to do something new is what gets many of them out of bed in the morning.
Innovation means taking risks, and for many leaders, that's what makes their jobs enjoyable.
Since being a magnet for new information and ideas is the entire point of networking, knee-jerk pessimism is like a career depressant.
So, how do you reconcile the need to give ideas a fighting chance?
It's all about presentation and timing.
Curb Your Skepticism
Here's a thought exercise to illustrate the importance of considering opportunities before problems:
Think about the company you work for today. Who are its biggest competitors, what challenges face the business and what has had to break the right way for it to have gotten this far?
Now ask yourself, if someone pitched you on that exact same business before it ever existed, would you have invested in it? Would you have thought the present was possible before it happened?
Considering that the vast majority of new businesses fail, the fact that your company is even around to employ you defies the odds.
Given that, maybe you could stand to relax your skepticism a little bit? You have much to gain, and nothing to lose by not fixating right away on potential problems.
You have much to gain, and nothing to lose by not fixating right away on potential problems.
If, and when, you do raise real objections down the line, you'll sound like a seasoned leader rather than a naysayer.
You'll keep the flow of new ideas coming your way, and some of those are going to be good.
You don't want to nip those in the bud prematurely.
Remember, new ideas are fragile.
Christian Bonilla is the author of SmartLikeHow.com where he writes about career building and product management among other topics. Product managers can sign up now for early access to a new service aimed at helping them design better products for their customers.