A lousy time to be a good idea

“We send our hypotheses ahead, an expendable army, and watch them fall.”

A lousy time to be a good idea
Photo by Dingzeyu Li / Unsplash

In 1992, Oxford English prof Andrew Nuttall wrote the following:

“The human capacity to think provisionally, to do thought experiments, to form hypotheses, to imagine what may happen before it happens, is fundamental to our nature and to our spectacular biological success (so far). I think the cleverest thing Sir Karl Popper ever said was his remark that our hypotheses ‘die in our stead’. The human race has found a way, if not to abolish, then to defer and diminish the Darwinian treadmill of death. We send our hypotheses ahead, an expendable army, and watch them fall.”

That’s the tidiest explanation I’ve seen of our infinite appetites for catastrophe in media and in the imagination.

There’s much to gain from the activity of worrying about responses to some imagined, awful event. Mental rehearsal prepares us. We imagine. We plan. We ruminate. The expendable armies fall, over and over. Human minds are so cluttered with this thinking. We do it automatically, exhaustively. (We can also stop it and enjoy the quiet, but that’s for another day.)

My theory of why everything is so totally hard to do

  1. We’re born experts at doing thought experiments automatically + individually,
  2. But we’re TERRIBLE at doing thought experiments deliberately + in groups.
  3. (Even worse, we believe we’re equally great at both kinds of thinking.)

This is a huge waste of effort and opportunity. I can't stand it.

The bad news

Think of all the little containers we’re meant to pour our great ideas into, things like…

  • Suggestion boxes where ideas go not just to die but to be forgotten “even by God.”
  • Big-design-up-front design commitments that allow only a single hypothesis from the start. Better hope you picked the right idea at the outset of that two year effort.
  • Asinine standards for projects like ‘6x return on investment,’ which preclude experimentation and discourage critical thinking.
  • Initiatives where everyone gets discouraged by an early failure and gives up, with a cry of, “we tried that and it didn’t work!”

The proliferation of all these is bad, and you can find them everywhere.

The good news

The good news is: there are better ways of working and deciding, together. Instead of suggestion boxes, create listening systems. Do set-based design and allow for new trade-offs and discoveries without blowing the budget. Validate ideas through rigorous PDSA, with small, reversible changes. Celebrate failure, because we learn from it and do something else instead.

All those continuous improvement methods, all the great facilitation approaches, the techniques for self-organization? That’s what they’re for. They’re here, they’re tested, and they’re effective—they’re also just a lot of work.

From where I sit, this is the job. Let’s get to it.


  • “We send our hypotheses ahead, an expendable army, and watch them fall.”
  • We’re super good at doing this automatically and individually…
  • …And we’re super bad at doing it deliberately, in a group.
  • Getting better at this is the whole ballgame for continuous improvement.