On the Spread of Ideas: Four Roles and Four Traps 

Much progress in the world depends on the spread of ideas. There is no shortage of good ideas, and no shortage of bad ones, but ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are relative to our positions, and success and failure are not dependent on either. The success of an idea depends on a multitude of factors, such as the the multiverse of contexts in which it is introduced, the dominant paradigm, the nature of the related problem situation or opportunity, the quality of the idea itself, the communication of the idea, possible unwanted consequences, and the characteristics of the proponents and detractors.

The introduction of new ideas is fraught with peril. As noted by Walter Bagehot (British journalist), “One of the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a new idea.” Similarly, Fredrik Baker (Danish writer and politician) observed that “whenever a new idea is developed … warfare immediately takes possession”.

The nature of this “warfare” affects the nature of roles (especially proponents and detractors) involved in the spread of new ideas, creating what Benjamin P. Taylor calls “ego traps” in his blog. In the context of systems thinking and practice, Taylor wrote a “lighthearted and conceptual piece intended to communicate something important” – how we might ‘go wrong’ with the spread of an idea, theory or method. This was co-developed at an Systems and Complexity in Organisation (SCiO) board meeting. Taylor describes four “ego traps that lie in wait as you enter into any powerful field of knowledge”. These (albeit stereotyped) ‘ego traps’ are evident in the world of idea-spreading about work and business (and associated goals such as safety, quality, health, productivity, and so on), and are amplified via social media. The ego traps are naive enthusiasts, oversimplifying popularisers, gooroos, and curmudgeons, each mapped onto a matrix. “Each of the types will poison the field and put others off, if you’re not careful”, notes Taylor. We might also think of these as ‘shadow roles’.

My interest turned towards the question of, to what activities and roles do these ego traps or shadow roles relate? So in this post, I describe four corresponding roles: implementers, promoters, innovators, and critics. The roles are not mutually exclusive, nor are they necessarily exhaustive, and we may adopt or identify with more than one. Importantly, all are essential to the development and spread of ideas, but each has associated traps. In reflecting on each role, we might usefully consider the following questions (inspired by Taylor):

  • To which roles are we most attracted?
  • Which associated activities do we tend to value and spend time on?
  • How might we move around the four roles where this is productive and helpful? How might help others to do so?
  • Which shadow sides or ego traps are we most at risk of falling into?
  • What behaviours are characteristic of these shadow sides or ego traps and how can we detect or mitigate them?
  • While shadow sides or ego traps are are most irritating to us when we observe them in others? What does this trigger in us, and why?
  • What other roles exist?

Implementers

Implementers want to apply new ideas actively to create change, via fellowship, compromise, and pragmatism. A metaphor for this role might be ‘hands’. Implementers are the students, followers, collaborators, and doers who make things happen and bring ideas to life. Without implementers, no new idea  – even a popular one – will progress beyond that. Of the four roles, implementers are the highest in number. This role includes all kinds of people, and we all adopt implementer roles for many ideas, without even realising it, but most of these are established ideas (which were once new).

To the implementer, a new idea may be accepted if it has high face validity. Such ideas will tend to make sense in terms of their experience and may well address long-held (but perhaps not fully articulated) frustrations. Implementers will of course tend to have a good understanding of their job and work context, but may lack deep understanding of the academic context of the idea. They may also lack diversity of experience either in education, or industry sectors, or both. Much of what may seem ‘new’ when it comes to understanding and improving work has been around for a very long time in various disciplines, and in much greater depth (e.g., philosophy, sociology, systems ergonomics, systems thinking, work psychology, ethnography, practice theory, action learning, complexity science). Most are unfamiliar with such disciplines, and the disciplines themselves are siloed, with products that lack accessibility (e.g., paywalled, exclusionary, overly verbose, poorly translated).

When it comes to new ideas, implementers are often sociable, agreeable and enthusiastic. They tend to follow promoters, and may also follow innovators. Without implementers, promoters and innovators have no means to gain a following or effect change. Some (but few) follow critics and may become critics, having discovered the problems associated with a new idea or been turned off by the ego traps of innovators and promoters

A shadow role for the implementer is Taylor’s naive enthusiast. Taylor noted that “The naive enthusiast thinks that this new thing they’ve found will change the world! And is incredibly frustrated that they can’t be allowed to run wild and just apply it to make *everything* better. They don’t want to hear about the history of what happened the last seventeen times that was tried!” When knowledge and critical thinking is lacking, there is a risk of being caught up in fads and flighty movements. Naive enthusiasts may unwittingly be locked into exclusive and expensive certification schemes and proprietary methods, which tend not to evolve with shifting contexts. Another danger lies in misunderstanding or watering down ideas to the extent that they are no longer representative of what they once were, much to the frustration of innovators.

Promoters

Promoters are typically motivated by having social influence. They are often deeply committed to the ideas. A metaphor might be ‘heart’. Promoters combine adaptation with communication (though these might be seen as two related but distinct roles). They are the educators, storytellers, translators, informal leaders, and networkers who bring ideas to the people. Without promoters, ideas would remain just that: ideas. Promoters are fewer in number than implementers and (probably) critics, but greater in number than innovators. Promoters sometimes include politicians and policy makers, who tend to see some ideas as magic bullets, providing an effective solution to a difficult or previously unsolvable problem, without unwanted side effects.

Promoters tend to be skilled in communication and social influence. They often employ storytelling and translation, making difficult concepts more comprehensible, relevant and connected to the work and lives of others. They tend to be very active on (and skilled in the use of) social media platforms such as LinkedIn, where there is much social capital to be gained. In many cases, they tend to be more approachable or personable than the innovator (and certainly the critic), especially since they engage in frequent, pleasant, two-way communication. They will also cooperate with other promoters for the same cause. Some promoters stick to one or a small number of ideas, while others promote hundreds.

Promoters are often linked closely to innovators, and may well have studied under them (or been certificated by them). Promoters may have started our as implementers (and remain implementers for other ideas) but may want to get to the position of innovator, which can bring new intellectual and commercial interests. 

A shadow role for the promoter is Taylor’s oversimplifying populariser ego trap. As Taylor notes: “The populariser wants to get a following — they count the ‘likes’ and the retweets, they don’t want to hear about the real complexities of the issues — that would get in the way of being an inspiration!” One issue is ignorance of the history and complexity of the issues at stake and the contexts to which they may (or may not) apply (for instance, newer thinking about safety will apply very differently to construction, surgery, and nuclear power, but may be promoted as a cure-all). A lack of depth and diversity of interdisciplinary understanding can be an Achilles heel. Another problem can arrive when promoters become stuck on one idea (magic bullet thinking) or, at the other end of the spectrum, promote ‘anything interesting’ (incoherent eclecticism). Then there is the trap of lust for social approval, which is turbo charged via social media and can feed narcissism – a turn off for potential implementers.

Innovators

Innovators – like promoters – want influence, but may be more interested in conceptual matters than direct connection with implementers and the minutia of implementation. A metaphor might be ‘head’. Innovators are the thinkers, inventors, architects, and discipline leaders who develop ideas that are likely to get traction. Innovators are the fewest in number, partly because of competition between ideas.They are often based in academia or consultancies (usually their own), or both. 

Innovators tend to be creative and unconventional thinkers. Some are extremely well read and and have deep and diverse knowledge, but this is not necessarily the norm. In the sphere of new thinking about work, they may invent concepts or tools that guide others’ thinking. The ideas are not necessarily ‘original’, but instead tend to borrow from other (sometimes obscure) places, transformed and repackaged in an ‘original’ way that can be readily understood and accepted, and hence with high face validity and broad appeal. The success of the innovator may be based on one idea that is (or seems) easy to understand and connects with others’ experiences. Even a fairly simple idea may be developed into a best-selling book (and, in some cases, these could be explained readily in a blog post), an article in a major magazine, or delivered via keynote talks.

Innovators tend to be individualistic and independent, and can be forceful characters. They have great belief in their idea(s), and pursue them with persistence. Some have a good understanding of marketing, even skilled in commercialism and commodification, and may employ trademarking, certification schemes, and the like.

As rather solitary characters, innovators need promoters to amplify their ideas and add essential narrative and texture. They may also be linked to implementers, especially via workshops and so on, but less often in two-way communication via social media and in-person contact. 

A shadow role for innovators is Taylor’s gooroo ego trap. Directly or indirectly, innovators are in competition with each other, and pride can get in the way of learning from each other (or critics-curmudgeons) unless the other is much respected (or dead). Exclusionary thinking and practice (e.g., in communication and marketing) can also be a great risk (and is clearly observable), where the innovator in gooroo shadow role believes or communicates that their approach is the right one, and others are wrong. Taylor noted that “The gooroo is in the business of collecting followers too, but needs to make sure they are locked in to the one true way of thinking. They have to poison the ground for all the other theories and ideas.”  Other theories and ideas may not need to be poisoned if they are complementary or form the shoulders upon which the gooroo’s ideas rest. But where they run counter, in terms of principles, theory or method, or are in competition, then alternative ideas may indeed be scorched, sometimes publicly. Innovators will be frequent headline acts at conferences and away days, for which some (gooroos) charge an eyebrow-raising or eye-watering fee, not staying for longer than their own keynote. 

Critics

Critics want to alert others to obstacles, history, complications, context, and alternative routes and destinations, and they want to be heard. A metaphor is feet. Critics are the reviewers, monitors and evaluators of new ideas. Critics are essential to highlight logical flaws, inconsistencies, shallow thinking, neglected knowledge, relevant context, impracticality, undeclared interests, faddism, and crass communication and commercialism. Critics may be plentiful, but may seem fewer in number than they are due to difficulties in communication. They may be found in any role, but many have been in a role or industry for a long time, and so are deeply suspicious of flighty concepts and fads. Some professions (such as safety- and security-related roles) tend naturally to produce critics. 

Critics may be gifted in critical thinking, or else they may be simply attached to conventional ‘time honoured’ ways of thinking and working. They may have deep or diverse knowledge that is not widely understood. This could be extremely useful in grounding an idea in a rich disciplinary, interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary context, or in an industrial context. But there can also be a number of barriers to new thinking.

Critics are often highly individualistic, and unless gifted in communication, social influence may prove difficult. But they can be very charitable with time and resources…for those prepared to listen. Some – strongly attached to their own ideas – move between critic and innovator roles.

Of the four roles, critics are often the least connected, especially if they lack skill in collaboration. Critics’ interactions with promotors, implementors, and innovators can be combative.

A shadow role for the critic is Taylor’s curmudgeon ego trap. In this shadow role, curmudgeons can suffer from wrath and envy, appearing angry, antagonistic, and even disrespectful, making social media a minefield. As Taylor notes, “the curmudgeon is heavily invested in telling everyone else that they are wrong, where they are wrong, and in excruciating detail *how* they are wrong.” Critics may have the knowledge – and perhaps even a desire – to fulfil an innovator role, but may not have not the personality or skills. This can cause enormous resentment, especially towards those seen as acting from the gooroo shadow role, but also towards those perceived as oversimplifying popularisers. Both are judged severely for different reasons associated with the associated ego traps. The anger from feeling ignored or unacknowledged, often for so long, can create a feedback loop, causing more and more isolation. In the curmudgeon shadow role, critics do not understand why people do not interact with them, though this is painfully obvious to others. Even where critics have pertinent knowledge, and arguments to bring to the table, in the curmudgeon shadow role, they are simply unable to communicate effectively. 


These are just four possible roles (and shadow roles) in the spread of ideas, and there are likely to be others (one may be that the connector role, connecting different roles without necessarily occupying them). We might reflect further on our preferred roles and how we might interact and collaborate with others, developing the knowledge and skills necessary for various roles without necessarily getting stuck in one role, or trapped in its shadow.


Author: stevenshorrock

This blog is written by Dr Steven Shorrock. I am interdisciplinary humanistic, systems and design practitioner interested in human work from multiple perspectives. My main interest is human and system behaviour, mostly in the context of safety-related organisations. I am a Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialist with the CIEHF and a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society. I currently work as a human factors and safety specialist in air traffic control in Europe. I am also Adjunct Associate Professor at University of the Sunshine Coast, Centre for Human Factors & Sociotechnical Systems. I blog in a personal capacity. Views expressed here are mine and not those of any affiliated organisation, unless stated otherwise. You can find me on twitter at @stevenshorrock or email contact[at]humanisticsystems[dot]com.

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