New Ideas: Separating The Chaff From The Grain

a scythe on grass

I enjoyed both Karen Schneider’s post and Meredith Farkas’ follow-up post about devil’s advocates. They talk about new ideas and how they require a lot of experimentation and iterations as well as people to challenge them to make them stronger.¬†I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while, and I think it’s a very important one for people in the library profession to think about, especially those in leadership positions.

Like I mentioned in my last post I am reading the book What Technology Wants. In this book Kevin Kelly relates a story about a missionary in China introducing a new technology which serves as an excellent parable about the resistance to new ideas:

“The missionary wanted to improve the laborious way the Chinese peasants in his province harvested grain. The local farmers clipped the stalks with some kind of small hand shear. So the missionary had a scythe shipped in from America and demonstrated its superior productivity to an enthralled crowd. “The next morning, however, a delegation came to see the missionary. The scythe must be destroyed at once. What, they said, if it should fall into the hands of thieves; a whole field could be cut and carried away in a single night.” And so the scythe was banished, progress stopped, because nonusers could imagine a possible — but wholly improbable — way it could significantly harm their society.”

Devil’s advocates are useful people to have around, but they can also stop new ideas in their tracks. If we try to imagine every negative thing that can happen with a new idea it will surely die. Often devil’s advocates imagine unrealistic or unlikely situations that have little chance of happening. Looking at something new as a threat leads to no new ideas.

A new idea is a very fragile thing. It needs a healthy environment to germinate and time to grow. We as librarians and people in leadership positions should try to cultivate this environment among our teams and in our workplaces. There is a place for devil’s advocates and looking at possible challenges that a new idea could face, but it seems that should come later in the process. Libraries are desperately in need of new ideas. Just as in the case of the scythe in the story above, if we only see the negative aspects of an idea or technology we will become really good at maintaining the status quo.

So when people are proposing new ideas, listen first instead of¬†criticizing. Bobbi Newman shared an excellent sentiment recently about contributing more than criticizing and it very much applies here. I know at times when someone is proposing a new idea I think to myself, “that’s stupid, it’ll never work.” But instead of dismissing it or nitpicking it, the more productive course of action would be to contribute to the idea to refine it or make it better. Not every new idea is a polished gem, but there may be the beginnings of something great in it. We just have to give it the proper environment to let it flourish.

Andy Burkhardt


  1. It could die, or additional scrutiny can lead to the polishing it needs.The peasant’s concerns about their crops being stolen was a matter of life and death, which is frankly, legitimate give the context of agricultural societies. Medival China or in the context of Mao’s rule, such concerns are utterly valid and Kelly glosses on the context to make his point.

  2. Joe, I agree that additional scrutiny is what polishes ideas and makes them stronger, and it’s necessary. I think that is Meredith’s point in her post about devil’s advocates. Subjecting an idea to criticism can test if it has value.

    What I’m thinking about though, is the environment in which new ideas are brought forward. If it’s a positive environment where criticism occurs because everyone genuinely wants to make the ideas better, there will likely be a lot more new ideas. But if it’s a negative environment in which people constantly criticize, not to make ideas better, but out of fear or uncertainty about the future or because they dislike someone or whatever, then people will be less likely to put forward new ideas.

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