Engineers and stupid ideas

So here’s an observation I have made repeatedly and again today, which prompted me to write this post. I’ve worked with a fair few engineers and often they would start a sentence with: “Well, I have this stupid idea, but maybe we could…”. And then they end up proposing something ingenious while drawing complex diagrams on a whiteboard (in today’s case, on a table).

I was particularly surprised that the engineer I met with today, formed this same sentence – because he used to work for NASA. Surely a former NASA employee doesn’t have stupid ideas? I pointed out my facetious observation and he jokingly responded: “It protects us from having to be brilliant all the time”. In his joke there is truth, but why is this self-protective downplaying of one’s own ideas so prevalent in engineers? I remember myself as a younger person making similar statements in order not to look a fool, but these are grown people with years of experience and something to show for their expertise. At least they could express the sentiment less harshly by eliminating the adjective “stupid”, e.g.: “I’m just throwing around an idea here, how about…?”.

We’re all aware that the more we know, the more we realise how much there is we do not understand or do not even know exists. Maybe engineers are just painfully aware of their ignorance, because they already know so much? How much truth was there in my joke, suggesting that we might expect an engineer to know everything?

I am playing this up, of course. And I don’t have any answers. But I am quite sure it’s related to how they were educated and to processes/ways of working engrained in the trade. Surely, also many a designer feels the pressure of wanting or having to be constantly brilliant. But as designers we have one card we can play, one excuse we don’t have to explicitly state that stems from our process: Ideation.

Ideation is untouchable, everything goes. There is no censorship, there are no stupid ideas, there is no criticism; and especially when working in a group, there is no pointing and laughing. Criticism and evaluation are saved for other stages of the process. Various stages can of course be fluid and designers move back and forth between them. And depending on how well members of a group know each other, or are used to this way of working, stages might be passed through explicitly or intuitively. But I have rarely heard a designer apologise for throwing an idea into the room – because ideally, other people in the group will build on it or it will trigger an idea in them.

And now I find myself wondering: If engineers were aware of this and became comfortable with ideation … letting their ideas flow without inhibition … how much more amazing would they be?