I’d often wondered why I always seem to have such a visceral response to hearing a woman say “I don’t work, I’m only a mother”. What do you mean by “only”? – why would anyone deride it so? And what do you mean by “I don’t work”? – it’s some of the hardest work there is!

Yet it’s only in the last few days that I’ve realised why I react so strongly to that strange self-denigration: it’s because much the same applies to my own work too.

To my sadness, I’ll admit, I’ve never been a literal parent. Yet almost all of my own work is about a very close analogue: idea-parenting.

Some years back I wrote here about the somewhat-similar notion of ‘ideafarming‘. That too is a lot of work, but it’s still a somewhat passive process: we give the ideas the best conditions to grow in, but otherwise leave them to grow up on their own. Projects and short-term products are often a bit like that, I guess: once they’re finished, harvested, they’re done.

Yet some ideas need a more active form of nurturing – ideas for tools and suchlike that would in turn take on an active life of their own, interacting with the world much like an animal – or a child, of course. That’s where we shift from farming of ideas, to something more like parenting.

This isn’t just about conceiving of ideas. (Conceiving is easy: ask any rabbit…) It’s what happens after conception of ideas that matters here.

There’s first a period of gestation, where the first tiny germ of an idea develops quietly, invisibly, into an embryo, and then onward towards a viable offspring. This may take place somewhat out in the open, as with birds; or in a fully hidden space, as with placental animals. It may take mere days, maybe a handful of weeks at most, like rabbits; or long, long months or years of gestation, like an elephant. It may demand no action as such from the parent, as with mammals; or active protection, as with nesting birds: but either way that stage of nurturing still takes real energy and effort.

And during that gestation, some ideas may die before they’re even born. They may be snatched away, disrupted, broken, as in a small bird’s nest after a raid by a magpie or a snake; they may be reabsorbed into nothingness, as a rabbit may do to its embryos when times are tight; they may simply be lost, without anyone ever really knowing that they’d existed. Either way, sad, yet a loss that we somehow have to accept.

Then the ideas are born, become active and visible, out into the open world. They might kinda hatch themselves, like a chick out of an egg; the birth may be easy, the infant idea almost absurdly small, much as with kangaroos and other marsupials; or the infant large, and the birth hard, much as with so many mammals – including humans, of course. But either way, that’s when the real work begins.

After the start, probably the hardest work in idea-parenting is about socialisation of ideas:

— To be ‘useful citizens’, ideas and tools need to incorporate self-disciplineconsistencyclarity; we need to know that they can be trusted to do what they say they’re going to do.

— They need learn how to ‘play nicely’ with other ideas, work together, support others, listen, suggest other options, not hog the space or the limelight.

— They need to find their own place within the world of ideas and tools – which, courtesy of affordances and other serendipitous interactions with the real world, may not be where we’d expected them to end up at all, but yet still turns out to be right.

If we’re not careful, some ideas can end up like street-kids, lost, abandoned, angry, always at risk of turning on their own creators, or lurching after any other fad that seems to offer some form of illusory hope.

If we’re not careful, some ideas can get stuck in the screaming selfishness of ‘the terrible twos’, becoming as dysfunctional and destructive as those behind neoliberalism and the like – so well summarised by the tagline for the film ‘The Riot Club‘, as ‘Filthy. Rich. Spoilt. Rotten.’

If we’re not careful, some ideas may never even get that far…

It’s a lot of work. A lot of work.

But here, as described in the previous post, we hit up against a fundamental problem. Much as with real parenting, this idea-parenting is barely acknowledged as work, and hence almost no-one within this so-dysfunctional culture of ours seems to realise that it somehow needs to be paid for, just like everything else.

In a way, real parents get it somewhat easier in that sense. What they do is still not much acknowledged as ‘work’ – sometimes even by the parents themselves, as per that quote with which we started – but at least there’s usually some form of payment, even if only from the state, as child-benefits or welfare or whatever. But for idea-parenting? – nothing. Always Somebody Else’s Problem, it seems…

And yes, in effect it’s another form of the futurist’s dilemma:

Yet for the context of idea-parenting, it’s actually a bit more subtle – and nastier, in terms of routine ‘dirty-tricks’ – than that diagram implies. To make sense of what goes on, it’s probably useful to cross-compare the above with another well-known diagram from Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm:

The first stages of idea-parenting, as one might expect, map closely to the Innovators phase of that model. And because just about everyone in that space is an Innovator, little if any money will change hands. In essence, everyone’s in the same boat, and everyone is a peer for everyone else: no-one has much money, and the whole space operates more like a sharing-economy where the real ‘currency’ is mutual assistance and mutual respect.

There’s then what Geoffrey Moore describes as ‘a smaller chasm’ to cross, to the Early Adopters, where the idea starts to stand up on its own feet and be able somewhat to look after itself. Metaphorically, a bit like the teenage years, or secondary-school, where the idea starts to take on its first real jobs under real-world conditions (or somewhat-sheltered conditions, to be more exact, but still definitely real-world by now). There might be a bit more money that changes hands here, but it’s still not much, because of the trade-off to get real-world experience. (Again, think of the kind of money that changes hands for a metaphoric newspaper-round or the equivalent.) It’s something – but it really doesn’t cover much of the costs that have been incurred so far.

At the end of that phase, we hit Geoffrey Moore’s ‘Big Scary Chasm’ – with even more costs to get the idea ready for the hoped-for big-time, the Early Majority, who might have pockets deep enough to start contributing towards all those past accumulated costs.


…that’s when our culture’s delightful parasites swoop in:

— the metaphoric equivalent of “yes, you can work here as an unpaid intern, and, by the way, everything you do and have done before now becomes our company’s ‘intellectual-property'”.

— the metaphoric equivalent of “just sign here, and here, and here – we’ll do all the rest, for a small service-fee, of, oh, only 90% plus expenses…”

— the not-so-metaphoric equivalent of seeing someone steal all of our multi-year work and rebadge it as their own, without paying a single cent towards any of the previous costs, because, “well, ‘everyone knows’ that your idea is obvious now, don’t they?”

(I’ve mostly managed to avoid the first two, but it’s not long ago that I had the un-joys of hearing how a big-consultancy VP got a standing-ovation at a conference, and big-consultancy gigs to follow, on the basis of what was just a rebadged merging of my work with someone else’s. I know it was my work that had been purloined there, because that person used a specific term that had otherwise only occurred in some of my published blog-posts. The phrase ‘We Are Not Amused’ applies, perhaps?)

So it’s not just that “pay only happens if you’re close to money”, as per the Futurist’s Dilemma: it’s perhaps even more that as soon as there’s the slightest hint of the possibility of payment, the parasites and scavengers appear – and they don’t leave a single scrap for anyone else.

Exploitation of ideas, indeed – but usually in the worst possible sense of ‘exploit’. Kinda like watching our children dragged off into slavery and servitude, destroying all of our hopes for their future – and for our own future too. Sickening, frankly: but such are the deep dysfunctions of our sick society. Oh well…

Idea-parenting is darned hard work, even just in the work itself. But that work is made much, much harder because so few people acknowledge it as work, and hence fail to understand why it needs to be paid for somehow, exactly as for any other work. And the work is made much, much harder again by the way in which our culture not only allows the parasites free-rein, with almost complete impunity, but in many cases actively supports them in doing so – even actively penalising the idea-parents on the parasite’s behalf.

The word ‘dispiriting’ doesn’t even begin to describe how that all feels at times…

But yes, it does kinda explain that visceral response to the phrase “I don’t work, I’m only a mother” – because for those of us whose life-work revolves around idea-parenting, the iniquities and injustices we face are, too often, almost too much to bear.

Best leave it there, I guess: over to you for comment, if you wish?

5 Comments on “Idea-parenting

  1. … on the other hand …

    I recently had this experience. In some context that I’d have to look up, I had an exchange with Len Fehskens, when he mentioned Milan Guenther. I hadn’t come across his work, but I’ve been in an extended discussion with a small group of people who specialize in design, and have been applying design thinking to enterprise. So I looked into Guenther’s book Intersection, and I was delighted to find my friend Tom Graves cited on p. 112 and 160.

    I said “on the other hand” because I think this is the way it’s supposed to work in the domain of nurturing ideas. It’s pointless not to put the ideas in front of other people, and when an idea resonates, the good form is to pass it on with an acknowledgement of the source. I’ve always felt a citation is a form of payment, whilst of course buying someone’s book is another, more tangible form of payment, as would be appointment to a university position, or inclusion in a proposal for some kind of gig, etc.

    Or (just checking here) do you feel that dropping your name and ideas into his book, albeit cited and indexed, and then getting some royalties from the book is a kind of rip-off by Guenther of your ideas? Just checking.

    I’m a big footnote fan myself, as much of a pain that can be. But I always think the energy I put into citing someone properly is a meager, but hopefully cumulative payment into the idea bank. Do you agree?

    And I do agree that you have every right to be outraged by the events you described in the story about the VP. I’d love to know who that bastard is, because I’m outraged too.

    • @Doug: “I think this is the way it’s supposed to work in the domain of nurturing ideas.”

      Yes, it is. And your example of Milan’s work is an excellent illustration of how we would hope it would work:

      — Other people’s ideas are brought in, assessed, reviewed, adapted where appropriate to the context. (Milan shows that he’s done a lot of this.)
      — The emphasis is on usefulness, on addressing a real-world problem or concern – ‘scratching an itch’, to use Stallman’s term. (Milan’s work on ‘Enterprise Design’ is, to me, a brilliant and much-needed work of whole-context synthesis.)
      — Some ideas are brought into the new work directly. As you say, it’s considered “good form” to cite the original source, if known. (Again, as per your example, Milan does this.)
      — Sometimes the ideas come in unconsciously, and/or we don’t know the source. In these contexts, we acknowledge the contributions of those unknown-others in a more open, diffuse way. (It may not be clear in the book, but in conversation with Milan that attitude is very clear.)
      — The amended ideas are openly shared with the peer-community for review, test and re-use. (In Milan’s case, see, for example, (PDF).)

      One of the key points is that, in terms of the adoption-sequence, this happens mostly in the Innovator stage, though to some extent also (particularly test and review) in the Early Adopter phase.

      The parasite/scavenger behaviour is very different, though the first stage is the same:

      — Other people’s ideas are brought in, assessed, reviewed, adapted where appropriate to the context.
      — The emphasis on marketability, and often (usually?) on creating an illusion of satisfying a real-world need or concern, without actually doing so. (In that sense, the business-model is very similar to that of a drug-pusher.)
      — Some ideas are brought into and merged into a ‘new’ work, often (usually?) without much understanding of how the original ideas work, or how they interact. The original sources are not credited, but instead reframed as ‘original research’ parasite/scavenger. The original sources are often identifiable, but usually just enough adaptations and modifications will be done to make the plagiarism too difficult and expensive to prove in a legal sense.
      — Sometimes the ideas come in unconsciously, but again this reality is dismissed, with all sources claimed/reframed as ‘own original work’.
      — The amended ideas are reframed as ‘exclusive proprietary intellectual property’, and are ‘shared’ – often (usually?) in incomplete or not-quite-usable form – solely in return for payment. (For example, certain consultancies are well-known for repackaging over-simplified rehashes of ten-minute interviews with unpaid ‘industry experts’ as $500+ ‘industry reports’.)

      By contrast with the Innovator ‘sharers’, the parasite/scavengers position themselves exactly in the ‘chasm’ between Early Adopter and Early Majority – in effect. blocking the view back to the original work done by the Innovators and the test-work done by the Early Adopters, then claiming the credit for all of that previous work, and also claiming (almost) all of the payment for that previous work.

      It’s true that the parasite/scavengers can be said to provide some modicum of ‘service’, by making new work visible in the kind of predigested form that Early Majority adopters are more likely to comprehend. The fact that they claim all of the credit and (almost) all of the payment for that previous work means that – in the money-based possession-‘economy’ of this dysfunctional culture, there are even greater disincentives to develop new ideas (‘idea-parenting’) than there would otherwise be. The fact that their mashups are often all-but-unusable in real-world practice doesn’t exactly help, either…

      @Doug: “…outraged by the events you described in the story about the VP. I’d love to know who that bastard is, because I’m outraged too”

      I can say in private, but not in public: the people concerned are large enough to use very ‘good’ lawyers to defend themselves against any allegation of plagiarism, no matter how blatant it might be. They’ve also had a lot of practice at tweaking their plagiarism just enough to prop up an illusion of ‘originality’ – in court, at least. The result is that Innovators learn, very quickly, that if we were to allege plagiarism – however blatant it might be – we’d be hit with a counter-suit of ‘libel’ that we would not be able defend. In short, they’re past-masters at using classic legalistic tricks to play “Heads I win, tails you lose”, For now, all we can do is live with it, as a kind of occupational hazard. Oh well.

      (The main defence we have against those games, in fact, is the openness of sharing at the Innovator phase. Yes, the openness does make our ideas more available for potential plagiarism – yet it’s much easier for a parasite-plagiarist to rip off a single naive, trusting Innovator than it is to rip off an entire community that’s learned the hard way not to trust the parasites, but keep them at arm’s-length as best we can…)

      • Doug: For an example of someone whose work is more aimed at Early Adopters, take a look at Alex Osterwalder. Yes, he’s making serious money these days, but that’s partly because of where he’s positioned himself (support for start-ups et al.), but even more because of a heck of a lot of hard work, on his own and with others:

        — the ‘original work’ was his own PhD thesis (openly published, as PhD theses properly should be, but occasionally aren’t)
        — he worked closely both with a tight-knit team (Yves Pigneur, Alan Smith, and later Steve Blank and others) and a loosely-knit collective of “470 practitioners from 45 countries” – all of whom are individually credited in the book
        — the core materials are all publicly available under Creative Commons licence
        — the book is not expensive for what it is (around $25 for c.300 pages – i.e. not $500+ for an eight-page ‘report’)
        — the later parts of the book are a synthesis of many people’s work – most explicitly credited, and in all cases explicitly identified wherever it is not his own work
        — the book’s material is designed to be complete enough to be usable directly, without needing further consultancy or further payment – training-workshops and the like are useful, particularly for real-time peer-review, but they’re in no way essential

        In other words, definitely ‘playing fair’.

        Contrast that with the parasites, who try to pretend that everything is solely their own work, and who wrap everything up inside a sealed box of “it’s secret, it’s proprietary, you can’t see anything at all until you pay us, whether it might be useful to you or not” – and then set out assign themselves high-priced closed consulting-gigs in closed corporations because the material is (designed to be) not-usable as-is, out-of-the-box.

        In other words, definitely not ‘playing fair’.

        A very important contrast there…

  2. Thanks, Tom, for confirming what I hoped you were saying. No, I really don’t need to know the identity of the parasites. I’ve had my own semi-amusing episodes of parasitism.

    The key thing that I hope to absolutely avoid, and so far (touching wood) have avoided, is the situation where someone claims to own one of my ideas so as to try to block my ability to practice my own stuff. I don’t necessarily want to “own” particular intellectual spaces, because I want to be free to keep opening up new intellectual spaces. This is why I resonate with your term idea-parenting. And I’ve seen what often happens when someone “owns” some space and as a consequence gets branded with that label forever. These notions of owning and branding very definitely cut both ways. For me (and this is a very personal issue that I don’t necessarily recommend to anyone else), the most important factor is room to maneuver.

    • @Doug: “the situation where someone claims to own one of my ideas so as to try to block my ability to practice my own stuff”

      Yep. Sadly, I’ve had that happen to me a couple of times now, and actually just today have had to take action against a rather-too-blatant risk of another incident of that type.

      (In a way, the term-hijack of ‘enterprise-architecture’ by the IT-obsessives is another illustration of that kind of effect – one that’s crippled the disciplines for a full decade or more by now. Oh well.)

      @Doug: “For me … the most important factor is room to maneuver.”

      Yep – very strong agree on that.

      Thanks again, anyway.

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