Obamacon Me
How Do You Know an Idea is Dead?

Exploring The Tyranny of Dead Ideas

I'm reading Matt Miller's The Tyranny of Dead Ideas: Letting Go of the Old Ways of Thinking to Unleash a New Prosperity. Some may argue with both the ideas that Miller identifies, as well as their implications. However I think that  few would challenge his premise that "in every era, people grow comfortable with settled ideas about the way the world works" and that it is this "intellectual intertia" that causes us problems, both individually as well as in the various relationships in which we find ourselves--in the partnerships, organizations, companies, institutions, etc. to which we belong.

Miller has a 3-step process for dealing with dead ideas that I think has applicability in many arenas:

1. Identify the Dead Ideas that Matter
Whether you are thinking about your personal or professional life, of how your team is operating or of what's happening in your organization, at any given time there are dozens--perhaps hundreds--of dead ideas circulating. Some are relatively harmless, but others are toxic, with far-reaching and dangerous implications. The first step in dealing with the tyranny of dead ideas is to identify those that are most important to the issues at hand. As Miller indicates:

". . . the key in any effort to improve the prospects of a country or company is to focus on the ones that are truly strategic. We need to step back from the rush of events to identify the premises that are central to an entity's fate."

2. Understand the Dead Idea's "Story"
To move past a dead idea, you must first understand the source of its power:

  • Where did it come from?
  • Why did it once make sense?
  • What has changed now that makes it useless or wrong or harmful?

Says Miller:

"The mere act of reviewing the history and trajectory of an idea, and dissecting the assumptions and circumstances that gave rise to it, almost immediately opens our minds to alternative ways of thinking that make more sense."

3. Reach for New (and Paradoxical) Ways of Thinking
The final step in the process is to identify new ways of thinking that both make more sense in light of existing realities and that put us in a better place to thrive based on these new realities. Often these changed belief systems seem paradoxical or counterintuitive, or even so crazy as to be off-limits. But just as often, this suggests that these are ideas worth exploring as they are key to any intellectual breakthroughs necessary to moving us beyond the strait jacket created by our current ways of thinking.

So what dead ideas need exploring in our personal lives? In our organizations?  Which are the most "strategic?" What are the stories behind those beliefs? How did they gain their power? What new ways of thinking do we need to embrace? How do we live with the paradoxes of those ideas?

I'd love to hear your thoughts, particularly on "dead ideas" that impact learning, both individually and organizationally.


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This is really interesting. I'd love to hear some specific examples. The current economic crisis has led me to think a lot about "dead ideas" and how we can keep them from re-emerging once we are out of the woods economically. For example, what about the idea that a strong economy requires us to be locked in a cycle of endless and escalating consumption?

Hi Shannon--Your "dead idea" is a great one. These are the dead ideas listed in Miller's book (I think your idea is actually related to a few of his):

"Our kids will earn more than we do."

"Free trade is always good, no matter who get's hurt."

"Employers should be responsible for health coverage"

"Taxes hurt the economy."

"Schools are a local matter."

"Money follows merit."

I'm still thinking about "dead ideas" related to learning.

Wow, what a great topic for the new year and the cusp of new leadership and(hopefully) a new leadership paradigm.

The idea of proprietary knowledge is one that I believe is becoming obsolete. With the advent of the internet, the "open" movements (open source, Creative Commons, Open University,etc.) and social media, the ability to hoard and control information is ending.

I would venture to guess that the concept of centralized founts of knowledge from credible, trusted sources was used to ensure accuracy, promote understanding of what research/science discovered to be true, and create natural centers for ease of access for ongoing exploration. Sadly, as with all established organizations, what evolved was a priority of self-preservation. An example of this outside of academia is the real estate industry. Realtors jealously control listing information. However, services such as RedFin are challenging this proprietary model.

Wikipedia is one obvious example on the web of crowd-sourcing as an alternative model for gathering, refining, validating and updating new information.

Kia ora Michele

This is a great post. It brings a number of issues out of the compost heap, none the least of which are the dead ideas.

I like the principle of getting rid of dead ideas. It's the method(s) use to identify them that intrigues me.

I'm not being a curmudgeon. I'm serious. When there is a compost heap of ideas that all need sorting, how do you recognise the decay from the living essence?

I warrant that at times it may be easy to see some of the decay. But it's not always the stuff that's been around for a while that's decayed. Some of that is the living essence. And there will be decay that is nearly new.

There is the ever present opportunity to cull the old and then start reinventing the wheel. I think that we have to take care not to open a can of worms when we decide to cull the dead ideas until we have a useful way of identifying them.

Catchya later
from Middle-earth

@Shannon- you are so right.

One such an idea is the principle that a strong economy requires so-called economic growth. This ties in with your 'escalating consumption', for it feeds it.

Catchya later

Just articulating a dead idea is a huge step for an individual or organization because it makes you question those notions that define self efficacy.

So how does an organization nurture and support an environment with no 'sacred cows' where it is safe to express an existing pattern as potentially a dead idea?

Just thinking about this some more from the standpoint of wikis, I came up with a few more ideas that should probably die: 1) You have to ask permission. 2) Content has to be owned. 3) Perfection before publication. My full post is here.

Hi, while recently enabling others to use wikis for group projects in higher education, using formative assessment approaches, one faculty member just couldn't understand the purpose of visiting the works in progress and suggesting ideas to the students to facilitate their learning, guide them and maybe even learn from them (I use an incredulous tone of voice here!). Rather, he preferred to leave them be, have them "submit" the wiki on a set date and then grade the wiki in red... of course I wondered... what is the point of the wiki here? So did she.

Anita, are you TRYING to make me cry here? This is a story that's wrong on several levels and makes me glad I'm no longer in school. :-)

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