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Innovation Insights
by Stephen Shapiro

penn on ideas

Penn Jillette’s Innovation Advice

Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller) has some brilliant advice on how they develop their act.

“(We) knock around ideas. We are not in any way supportive. As soon as the germ of an idea comes up, the other person tries to crush it, because if there’s something bad about it, we want to find out as soon as we can. We never compromise, because that can only lead to mediocrity. If one of us doesn’t like something, we try to come up with another idea we do both like.”

I love this advice!

All too often, we fall in love with our ideas or innovations.

But instead of adoring them, what if we ripped them to shreds? What if we focused on why they won’t work?

Failure should never be the goal of innovation. By questioning your ideas – and through proper experimentation – you can minimize the risk of failure.

When I posted this elsewhere, others blasted this perspective. They felt this idea was a bad idea, and they ripped it to shreds. Many believed that we should be nurturing ideas rather than shooting them down.

Yes, a duo is different than a company. And I agree that criticizing or killing ideas too early can be detrimental.

My point is that most individuals fall in love with their ideas. They think they are great, and then confirmation kicks in. They only then see the good rather than seeing what aspects need to change (or why it is terrible).

I love this quote from Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit: “For each of our failures, we had spreadsheets that looked awesome.”

We can justify any idea with a spreadsheet. We can always find evidence supporting our beliefs. This is one reason for rampant innovation failure. Proper experimentation, along with a devil’s advocate approach, can counteract confirmation bias.

So, yes, Penn’s point might be extreme. And maybe their criticality is too brutal and too early in the process for others. But the process works for them because they trust each other and know that their criticisms are designed to improve the result.

Regardless, I’m not saying that organizations should shoot down ideas. I am only suggesting that we, as individuals, not fall in love with our own ideas. Maybe we need an internal debate like Penn & Teller have with each other.

What are your thoughts?