Coaching Actuaries


Career Advice

The Dark Side of Ideas (Part 6 of 7)

April 16 2019 • Dave Kester

This is blog 6 of 7 where I share lessons I’ve learned the last few years as I’ve seen Coaching Actuaries grow from a staff of 5 to 31. In this blog, I’ll illuminate the dark side of ideas.

One key principle we have at our company is that we are more effective if we focus on improving our “strengths” rather than our “weaknesses”. My son Josh is a certified Strengths Finder coach and has helped our company’s staff understand their strengths and how they can use them well. I could resonate with this strategy because I knew my weaknesses were so deficient that I didn’t think there would be much benefit trying to improve my weak areas. So, might as well focus on the strengths. I also resonated with the belief that everyone has strengths, or at least talents, it’s just a matter of identifying and improving them.

One of my talent/strengths is ideation. This basically means that I’m always thinking of ideas. There are many advantages to ideation when starting a company because you need good ideas to start and create something different, yet useful.

Over the years, I’ve had a lot of ideas. I mean, a lot! In retrospect, many of the ideas could be categorized as crazy, but they seemed good at the time. When our company was small (staff of 5), I was the decision maker so I shared most ideas with the staff. There were benefits from these ideas. But, as I’ve aged and I’ve had other leaders come alongside, I’ve learned about the dark side to my ideas. Here are examples where my ideas were detrimental, rather than helpful.

Ideas Without Strategy

My most important problem was I didn’t have a solid, focused strategy to start from. So, there was no compass guiding the company. Rather, it was guided from my frequent ideas that seemed to change rapidly. In formula, ideas – strategy = disaster.

Ideas Without Feedback

Early on, I acted on my ideas without counseling mature people who could give me a different perspective. Just like one good idea can save a company, one bad idea can create tremendous hardship. I learned from the school of hard knocks. Once I faced the consequences of my bad decisions, I realized how much headache I would have avoided if I would have thought through possible negative scenarios before beginning. I also tend to be an eternal optimist, which paired with ideation, can be dangerous. In formula, ideas + optimism – strategy = bigger disaster.

Ideas Without Prioritization

I underestimated the impact new ideas had on my staff by taking their focus off of what they were currently working on. Even though I may not have verbally stated, my expectation was that the staff would maintain their current responsibilities while also picking up my latest and greatest idea. Clearly not sustainable! Not only is it not sustainable from a time perspective. But also, the impact it had on staff being able to remain productive when I would interrupt their progress. In formula, ideas + optimism – strategy – discipline = ruin, or at least, many late nights.

An example was about 5 years ago when Adapt was really taking off, I thought it would be cool to build an online calculator that could easily and quickly calculate common functions students needed for the exams. For instance, we could use this calculator for a fixed annuity. A student would simply enter the parameters and the calculator not only gave the answer, but dynamically produced each step to the answer. I admit, it was pretty cool. Of course, it took significant time to program and add the formulas. At that time, we were still pretty young so there were more important things I could have had my programmer work on that were core to the business and the actuaries had plenty of core content to create. But, we did build this and it had moderately good feedback. But, how much did it really help students? What was our opportunity cost?

If that wasn’t costly enough, there were random times when the entire system would stop working. It didn’t happen often, but when it did, you felt like the building was on fire. Eventually, we tracked down the cause. We identified a bug in the online calculator we created where it caused the system to crash if a certain scenario occurred. So, not only was this idea expensive from an opportunity cost, but it nearly ruined the business with the bug that was in it.

In summary, if you’re an idea person, my advice is to be careful. Even though there’s potential for wonderful things to result from your idea, there’s also the potential for many problems if you don’t pair it with strategy, discipline, and some healthy skepticism.

This is blog 6 of 7 where I share lessons I’ve learned the last few years as I’ve seen Coaching Actuaries grow from a staff of 5 to 31. In this blog, I’ll illuminate the dark side of ideas.

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    About the Author

    I’ve been helping aspiring actuaries for more than 20 years. When I’m not teaching, I like to read, run, and listen to good math stories. When I was preparing for the actuarial exams, there was nothing like Coaching Actuaries. Now, we combine teaching and technology to guide the next generation of actuarial students.

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