The Paradox Of Creative Consensus and Defying The Critics


Welcome to The Action Digest, where we serve up creative insights that are more action-packed than a Bruce Lee movie.

Here’s what this week’s high-octane edition has to offer:

  • 💣 A counter explosives expert teaches us why our greatest ideas have the highest odds of dying and how to save them. 

  • 📰 J.K. Rowling, The Beatles, and Jeff Bezos show us how to respond when smart critics laugh at our ideas.

P.s., you can check out editions 1-6 here in case you missed them. Seriously, there are some gems you’ll appreciate in these early editions. ;-)

1. The first sign of a brilliant idea is strongly divided reactions.

“A senior man who was well respected gathered everyone together to say a few words. But he barely said anything and gave people hugs.”

It was 2010, Afghanistan, and yet another soldier in Wayne Johnson’s unit had been killed. This latest tragedy was indicative of a much larger problem for the U.S. army: improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were responsible for almost half of all military casualties.

Wayne’s unit was tasked with finding these IEDs and neutralizing them so that their fellow soldiers could go about their work safely. But they were failing. “After a month of heavy losses, I realized radical experimentation was needed,” Wayne admitted.

See, Wayne's unit was relying on military technology to detect IEDs without ever leaving the safety of their armored vehicles. This strategy had proved effective in Iraq, but in Afghanistan, the IEDs were different. They were buried underground and made of homemade explosives, making them undetectable by the army’s tech.

So Wayne proposed a radical new approach. He argued that troops should exit their vehicles and simply “eyeball” the roads for signs of concealed bombs. But this idea elicited strongly divided reactions. “Some people told me, ‘Yeah, this is brilliant. Do it.’ And there’s some people who told me, ‘I don’t think you’ll survive two weeks if you do this.’”

In light of this polarizing response, it would’ve been easy to back down. After all, if he was wrong, people would lose their lives. But Wayne knew that people could also die if he didn’t push the idea forward.

And so that’s what he did.

But the results were surprising even to him. The new approach turned out to be so much more effective than the old one that Wayne was effectively fired. His new job was to teach what he’d learned to other units and spread the message across the army.

That’s when something peculiar dawned on Wayne: devising his idea wasn't the hard part; the real ordeal was convincing others of its merit. In total, it took five years for his method to gain widespread acceptance. Yet, it required only five weeks to formulate the idea and an additional five months to polish it. With all told, it took 50x longer to adopt a life-saving concept than it took to conceive it.


When Wayne returned from Afghanistan, he made it his new mission to find out why creative ideas face so much resistance. Last month, he published a study in the prestigious scientific journal Nature, shedding some light on the answer.

Wayne and his team took a rather unusual approach, beginning their research with the hit US TV series Shark Tank and the Sundance film festival. Wayne’s team analyzed hundreds of audience reactions to business pitches and films that premiered between 2015 and 2022.

Their analysis unearthed an interesting pattern:

The pitches and films that were the most “novel” (new or unfamiliar) were also the most polarizing.

The more a given startup or film was perceived as novel, the more hotly audiences disagreed over whether it was good or not. This explains why Wayne’s new IED approach elicited such strongly divided reactions—it was a big and novel departure from the status quo.

The real problem, as Wayne’s team found, is that we become less willing to get behind an idea when we see everyone disagreeing over it. For example, one of their experiments found that investors were less willing to invest in a product when they saw reviews that were strongly polarized.

This reveals the paradox of creative consensus.

  1. For an idea to be considered innovative, it must be both novel and useful.

  2. Yet, the more novel an idea is, the more sharply we disagree over its usefulness.

  3. This disagreement then makes us more resistant to investing in the idea.

  4. Our resistance means brilliant ideas may be discarded or, at best, meet fierce resistance.

In light of this dilemma, how can we protect our best ideas from getting killed off before their potential is explored? How can we make sure not to overlook those ideas that have the potential to be genuinely transformative?

Wayne’s study suggests a two-pronged approach.

  1. Firstly, we must be conscious of our tendency to disregard polarizing ideas and take counteractive measures. Do not see disagreement about an idea as a sign to disregard it, instead see disagreement as a sign to get curious about an idea. Polarizing ideas warrant more of your attention, not less.

  2. Secondly, Wayne’s team found that we are less likely to reject a novel idea when we have specific criteria for assessing its usefulness. This of course requires us to identify the criteria upon which we should evaluate the quality of an idea in the first place. For example, creating a web browsing product to compete with Google may seem like a bad idea. But when evaluated through the specific lenses of superior privacy (DuckDuckGo) or speed (Safari), these ideas seem less contentious.

To sum up: good ideas are often naturally polarizing. There is a danger that this polarization dissuades us from pursuing good ideas. But we can counteract this tendency by seeing polarization as a cue for curiosity rather than dismissal, and by choosing the most appropriate and specific lens by which to evaluate new ideas.

2. When the critics start laughing is when you might just be onto something.

🔐 This insight, where J.K. Rowling, The Beatles, and Jeff Bezos show us how to respond when smart people laugh at our ideas is for premium subscribers (yep, this weekly digest is reader supported). For the price of one fancy coffee per month our research team will agonize over the lessons learned from world class creative leaders and teams who make ideas happen, and send their tightly summarized conclusions directly to your inbox on a weekly basis. What a proposition, huh?!

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Action, Action, Make Ideas Happen

The Action Method was designed almost 15 years ago to help the most productive and creative teams in the world think and work with a bias towards action.

The Action Method is a 3-part system with each page containing a zone for your preparation notes (prepare), a zone for you to jot down thoughts and ideas (explore), and a zone for you to convert ideas into action steps (execute).

It's like having a personal trainer for your productivity, ensuring you're always exercising your brainstorming and execution muscles with excellent form.

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Upcoming insights and hacks for subscribers:

  • How do we ensure our biggest ideas cross the finish line? We explore a motivational technique that rallied 60,000 people to achieve London’s most ambitious project.

  • What’s the secret to sparking career-defining ideas? We’ll be breaking down a surprising habit shared by history’s greatest innovators and creatives to achieve their biggest breakthroughs.

  • Why is productivity and decisiveness insufficient? The strange method that turned around a failing soup company reveals an essential leadership principle.

  • So much more… Making ideas happen is a form of fitness, and we are your trainer. ;-)

We’ll leave you with this…

“I have already settled it for myself so flattery and criticism go down the same drain and I am quite free.” 

Georgia O'Keefe

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