The secret engineer: Lord save us from the ideas man

Published: 18 Aug 2016 By Secret Engineer

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Our anonymous blogger considers how best to deal with the dreaded “Ideas Man / Woman”

I remember hearing a joke going about regarding one of my colleagues when I joined the engineering fraternity in the dim and distant past.

Apparently this particular bright spark had come up with a stunning new tweak on a design then in development and, when asked by his incredulous peers how such a thing would be achieved, had replied “Don’t ask me, I’m just the ideas man.”

    Invariably the suggestions they make will be hugely ambitious and impractical

Ever since then I have been on the look out for the “Ideas Man” (or, of course, “Ideas Woman”) and found examples everywhere that I’ve worked.

The secret engineer articled

The ideas man / woman – all workplaces have them

Invariably the suggestions they make will be hugely ambitious and impractical. Equally invariably these suggestions will be made in an off hand way, not only as if the idea is obvious to anyone if only they had the wit to see it but also belying the highly complex subtleties of implementation.

I have yet to determine whether such extravagant ideas come from people because they have an ingrained superiority complex regarding their own creative abilities or because they are secretly frustrated design engineers.

If the Ideas Man is on the same rung of the ladder as myself, or below, then I find a surprised raising of the eyebrows and barely stifled guffaw is sufficient to inform them of the error of their ways.

If they persist then heavy sarcasm is brought to bear. Something along the lines of “Yes, and if we put a rotor on the top and fly it upside you can cut the grass with it as well.” Possibly followed by “…you imbecilic amoeba.”

    The higher ranking Ideas Man also tends to bring an additional peril with him

If the Ideas Man is higher up the ladder then the sarcasm must be eschewed, or at least disguised. Unfavourably comparing the boss’s IQ to that of plankton is, when all is said and done, not a terribly wise career move.

I have found that the higher ranking Ideas Man also tends to bring an additional peril with him. Pearls of wisdom like “If we make it a nuclear powered Widget then the glow will also make it easier to find in the dark” will often be followed by “that shouldn’t take you long” or, even worse, “you should have that done in a couple of hours.” I was once given a “half day job” that took two weeks of hard work to complete.

So just how does one handle this most thorny of problems? I find that letting the dust settle first is always helpful. Listing the obvious failings whilst their tail is up and their eyes shine with the inner light of divine inspiration is an entirely pointless exercise. Once they have convinced themselves that this is the perfect solution / ultimately desirable and achievable option then the senior Ideas Man tends to be like a particularly tenacious Terrier with a rat.

    Very occasionally the Ideas Man does hit on something worthwhile.

I promise to go away and look into it instead, then list all the problems and go back fully armed the next day. If I am absolutely certain of my ground then I have not been beyond introducing a seemingly inescapable fatal flaw to the worked up scheme, leaving the instigator to find this on their own. They get a sense of achievement through spotting it and I get what I know is the right result – basically everyone wins.

Sometimes, very occasionally, though the Ideas Man does hit on something worthwhile. I admit to a small demon whispering in my ear on such occasions that I should “bury it, as it will only encourage them into thinking that the near random aspect of being right some of the time is in fact proof of their innate genius.”

However we are not employed to make life easy for ourselves or to deny others their moments of glory. So, instead, I embrace it and congratulate them on their insight. I cannot help but think that those in other disciplines have very little idea about these hoops that we in design have to jump through on a day to day basis.

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