Don’t Be An “Idea” Person

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about ideation and implementation. Based on the ways I’ve heard nonprofiteers talk about these two concepts, it seems we’ve created a false dichotomy. How many times have you heard phrases like: 

  • “I’m no good at details. I’m more of an idea person.”
  • “He focuses on details and doesn’t see the big picture.”

To me, being a strategic, big picture thinker does not preclude you also being a project manager who tracks details like a boss. In fact, I often find that those with boots-on-the-ground implementation experience have better ideas. They are closer to the challenges and opportunities that are ripe for innovation.

Not only do we set these two compatible areas of work up as oppositional, I’ve also found that these two arenas are differently valued. We equate ideas with leadership whereas implementation is often delegated down.

Why is that? Well, first of all, brainstorming and ideas are cheap, easy and fun; it’s the work we do before we realize the inevitable pitfalls in our plan. It’s like a physics problem that tells you to discount friction.

But in implementing an idea, you don’t get to discount friction. In fact, much of the work feels like a hard push to account for and overcome resistance (upset stakeholders? missed deadlines? unresponsive volunteers?).

Perhaps we value ideas and strategy BECAUSE it is often the domain of executive directors. We accept that those higher up in the organization have earned the right to do the more stimulating work of strategy — maybe in the throes of our 2,000 Raiser’s Edge entries that need updating we dream of being that person in 10 years. And so we’ve accepted that ideas are the domain of the higher-ups.

But is that really a recipe for impact and success?

Take Bill Gates. He is unquestionably successful. But he is also a service-minded executor who understood that rather than an amazing idea, “success requires extraordinary execution of an ordinary idea.”

And we don’t have to consider just tech billionaires to see this trend. The best nonprofit leaders I know defer strategy and decisions to those with the most on-the-ground knowledge, make an effort to stay up to date on current trends in how work in their department is actually executed, and raise their hand for data entry when needed. 

Of course, ideas and new ways of thinking are the only way to progress and innovate. But, I would argue we can innovate AND implement, execute AND strategize. We can be big picture thinkers and still hold ourselves accountable to hit deadlines under budget. So, I’m going to contradict the title of this post — go ahead, be an idea person! But don’t be ONLY an idea person. Because ultimately, any strategy is only as good as our ability to implement it.

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