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Are Your Ideas Having Sex?

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Now that I have your attention…let me give you a bit of setup.

I am training for a marathon. In general, a stupid thing to do. Not training, but running a marathon in the first place. I’ve done it before and for some reason have chosen to do it again. Regardless, my favorite strategy to occupy my mind while on long weekend runs is to download a few TED podcasts and expand my horizons. If you are not familiar with TED, you should be. TED is an international event with videos  devoted to ‘ideas worth spreading.’

That said, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist, introduced the notion of ‘ideas having sex’ during TEDGlobal 2010. Through extensive psychological research, paired with historical and economic analysis,  Ridley provides a compelling case for collaboration.

“You need to understand how human beings bring together their brains and enable their ideas to combine and recombine, to meet and, indeed, to mate,” explains  Ridley. “In other words, you need to understand how ideas have sex.”

As the Director of the Government Business Council, I have conducted several studies on collaboration, transparency, and breaking down agency silos. Too often, I have heard in surveys and focus groups that some leaders put up false barriers between and even within agencies. These barriers, whether masked behind the cloak of security, protocol, or good ole’ inter-agency politics, prevent the creation of an environment that allows for ideas to mate – for authentic collaboration.  

In my mind (now remember, I listened to this while running on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., passing by stately USDA buildings on Independence Avenue…and fighting the urge to stop and turn around), the hypothesis tested by  Ridley begs the question - does your manager encourage your ideas to have sex? I would argue that the collective brain of the federal government is a brilliant one. So, to belabor a cheesy metaphor, is your boss your idea pimp? Are you encouraged to court your ideas with colleagues and experts within and across your agency? Can you take your ideas to make-out point with state and local government officials – or private sector and NGOs in your field?

“Throughout history, the engine of human progress has been the meeting and mating of ideas to make new ideas. It's not important how clever individuals are,”  Ridley says, “what really matters is how smart the collective brain is.”

To engage in some careful mating, here are some questions to consider inspired by a Harvard Business Review story entilted "Are You a Collaborative Leader?"

1.       Be a Play Global Connector

  • Do you attend conferences outside your professional specialty?
  • Are you part of a broader networking organization?
  • Do you regularly blog or e-mail employees about trends, ideas, and people you encounter outside your organization?
  • How often do you meet with parties outside your agency who are not directly relevant to your immediate job demands or current operations?
  • Are you on the board of any outside organizations?

2.       Engage Talent at the Periphery

  • How diverse is your immediate team in terms of nationality? Gender? Age?
  • How much time do you spend outside your home country?
  • Does your network include people in their twenties (who aren’t your kids)?

3.      Collaborate at the Top First

  • Do members of your team have any joint responsibilities beyond their individual goals?
  • Does the compensation of your direct reports depend on any collective goals or reflect any collective responsibilities?
  • What specifically have you done to eradicate power struggles within your team?
  • Do your direct reports have both performance and learning goals?

4.      Show a Strong Hand

  • Have you killed any collaboration projects in the past six months?
  • Do you manage dynamically—forming and disbanding teams quickly as opportunities arise?
  • Do the right people in your organization know they can “close” a discussion and make a decision?
  • Does your team debate ideas vigorously but then unite behind decisions made?

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(Image via Lightspring/

Bryan Klopack is the Executive Director of Research and Analysis for the Government Executive Media Group (GEMG). In addition to leading the organization’s research arm, The Government Business Council (, he also serves as the Program Chair for the Excellence In Government LIVE event and editor of Excellence In Government ONLINE blog, Promising Practices. Prior to joining Government Executive Media Group in 2008, Bryan worked for the non-profit The Council for Excellence in Government after completing a Public Affairs Fellowship and a brief stint working in the U.S. Senate.

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