Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Power of ideas

John Maynard Keynes, the economist once said:

"The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist."

Ideas can seem small. They can seem weightless. How many ideas fit on the head of a pin?

But Keynes was right. Consider Karl Marx, his ideas where hatched during the middle of the nineteenth century but led 60 years later to the Russian revolution, and from there to the cold war that only ended in the 1990’s. Millions still live with his ideas in China, Loas, Korea, Cuba and elsewhere.

That is a powerful idea.

Maybe if Marx hadn’t had these ideas someone else would, but mankind had gone several thousand years before he came up with the ideas. Maybe it would have been another thousand years before someone had the ideas. Still, apply the Jackson Pollock test, it was Marx who had these ideas when he had them.

Something similar happens to ideas in companies.

Often it takes time for a new idea to work its way into the system, people need time to think about the idea, see if it makes sense to them and try the idea. Sometimes the people who embrace the new ideas aren't in a position to do anything with them only in time as these people move into positions of influence can they do something with a new idea. And sometimes it takes time for people to see the applicability of an idea, only over time as they now view the world with the new idea in their head does it start to make sense of them.

So as with Marx there may be a the gap between the idea and affect.

Ideas can often seem very abstract and they can be difficult for people to grasp. This is where stories role to play. By embedding an idea in a story that tells how it changed people, and what was done, the idea is less abstract and people have an example to better understand the idea. This can help in internalising the idea and seeing work can be applied in an organization.

Still it can take time for an idea to have an affect. We can speed up the work of an idea if we support it but we can also smother it. I suppose a I have been guilty once or twice of having a great idea, or at least an idea I thought was great, and by being over enthusiastic about the idea I have made people sick of the idea.

Another thing that can slow down theory adoption of an idea is the need to change some of our existing ideas. If we are to embrace a new idea we often have to give up something else - if I want to embrace the idea of a red car I need to get rid of my idea of a blue car.

And so back to Keynes who also said
"The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones."

Look at the difficulty some countries have had in getting rid of Marx's ideas.

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