Idea people versus results people

I liked this quote from Hugh MacLeod the other day:

Idea-Driven People come up with Ideas (and Results), more often than Results-Driven People come up with Results (and Ideas).

His quote brings up two related fallacies.

  1. People who are good at one thing must be bad at something else.
  2. People who specialize in something must be good at it.

Neither of these is necessarily true. It’s wrong to assume that because someone is good at coming up with ideas, they must be bad at implementing them. It’s also wrong to assume that someone produces results just because they call themselves results-driven.

The first fallacy comes up all the time in hiring. Job seekers may leave credentials off their résumé to keep employers from assuming that strength in one area implies weakness in another area. When I was looking for my first programming job, some companies assumed I must be a bad programmer because I had a PhD in math. One recruiter suggested I take my degree off my résumé. I didn’t do that, and fortunately I found a job with a company that needed a programmer who could do signal processing.

Andrew Gelman addressed the second fallacy in what he calls the Pinch-Hitter Syndrome:

People whose job it is to do just one thing are not always so good at that one thing.

As he explains here,

The pinch-hitter is the guy who sits on the bench and then comes up to bat, often in a key moment of a close game. When I was a kid, I always thought that pinch hitters must be the best sluggers in baseball, because all they do (well, almost all) is hit. But … pinch hitters are generally not the best hitters.

This makes sense in light of the economic principle of comparative advantage. You shouldn’t necessarily do something just because you’re good at it. You might be able to do something else more valuable. When people in some area don’t do their job particularly well, it may be because those who can to the job better have moved on to something else.

Related post: Self-sufficiency is the road to poverty

8 thoughts on “Idea people versus results people

  1. 1. People who are good at one thing must be bad at something else.
    2. People who specialize in something must be good at it.

    I think these fallacies stem from people wanting to even out skill or talent levels. After all, since there are definitely people who are NOT skilled in many things and people can NOT both come up with great ideas and execute them, therefore everyone is this way, otherwise it wouldn’t be “fair”.

    That wishful thinking has no bearing on reality. Instead of focusing on labels (he’s an “idea person” and she’s the “implementation person”), great people can create.

  2. I’ve thought about this for a couple of days before I posted. In my experience, results oriented people are better at generating good, usable ideas better than “idea” people generate good usable ideas. My own evidence says that men in the field, meeting challenges head on have to generate good, workable ideas in order to “get the swamp drained.” Maybe I missed the point of your article, or maybe my point of reference is different that what the original author was using.

  3. Gene, I guess my comments took the quote in a little different direction originally intended. My point was that just because someone is good at generating ideas, you shouldn’t assume that they cannot implement. And just because someone gets results, you shouldn’t assume they can’t generate ideas.

  4. I appreciate the notation of the false dichotomy between the Ideist and the Results driven person. I am of the belief they are much more mutually inclusive than they are exclusive of each other. I am by trade both an idea and a results person. I work in advertising as a creative director, and cannot express enough the power of a breakthrough idea, or the affirmation of great results. To dare bring a big idea to life is by its very nature a transformative experience. Aka, a game changer. The game is still the game. Winners and losers, each with their measured scores and the occasional analyst as supposed fan screaming “I told you so!” on the sideline. By it, the ideas that we create measure our results. And any good “idea” person can tell you, an idea without application or results is just a fart in the wind. As a final thought, when it comes to the kind of person who do so well in this idea driven business (aka, “the employed”), it’s never one or the other. We like truly multidisciplinary thinkers who can pick up any brief or assignment and wring some previously unconsidered insight from its miserable soul and march that thing to transformation by virtue of their ability to execute in multiple disciplines. They do it every time. Its awesome to watch (unless of course you are the pragmatic competitor hoping we’d settle for the lowest common denominator).

    Great post!

  5. English language — and, indeed, any language, has to deal with ambiguities. Ambiguities are inherent in any system which symbolizes something else which has an existence outside of that system.

    And people are usually pretty good about dealing with ambiguities. And people usually have problems dealing with ambiguities.

    Some ambiguities here, are that a person can be good at X (generating ideas, or generating results) and still have a failure rate. In fact, the higher your generating rate, the bigger the impact of your failure rate. So, people that do a lot of something are going to tend to have a lot of mistakes, also.

    Meanwhile, mistakes can be a part of the process and if dealt with correctly can be turned into something positive (thus: labs in school coursework, test driven design, the scientific method).

    From a different viewpoint, ideas and results are not separable. You can distinguish between math and science for example — one is purely a construct of the mind where the other is rooted in physical reality. But both have their own kinds of results. And, yet, in both cases the results could also be categorized as “ideas”.

    Put differently: if you are not capable of generating ideas, you are not capable of thinking. if you are not capable of generating some sort of result, you are not capable of living. So when we talk about an “idea person” or a “result person” we are really talking about their contribution to a specific activity. And, as pointed out in the blog here, contribution and capability are two different kinds of things.

    Still, if you spend your time in a frame of reference where you are generating “ideas” it might very well be the case that you are not spending that time generating “results”. And that is maybe relevant to the kind of conversation where a person might refer to themselves as an “idea person” or a “result person” — they might be hinting at how they have prioritized their time.

  6. rdm: I especially appreciate this part of your comment

    In fact, the higher your generating rate, the bigger the impact of your failure rate. So, people that do a lot of something are going to tend to have a lot of mistakes, also.

    That’s why it’s important to be in an environment that emphasizes rewarding success rather than punishing failure. The latter environment discourages hard work.

  7. I wish I were working for a company like 3m, though any company would be good. I was president of a lumber manufacturing plant and basically worked through the worst 10years the industry has ever had. I survived and sold the business but feel unfulfilled because I have this mind that never stops thinking about things. I think in pictures. I have multi million dollar ideas with no outlet. I feel I can come up with a better solution than anyone if they are willing to listen. My weak point is I am a procrastinator maybe due to the fact I want to make whatever it is perfect. It is interesting that you have a place for ideas people to vent. Keep up the good work.

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