Tech Leader Pro podcast 14, Letting go of bad ideas

Published on 2022-05-10 by John Collins.



I have often seen the following behaviour from people I have worked with:

My ideas : good

Other people's ideas : bad

Obviously this is not clever, and is largely driven by hubris. All too often, an egotistical leader will dismiss an idea based upon its source, rather than its content. That is a massive blind spot.

A leader should never "grudgingly" agree with someone, and if they feel that way, its a wake-up call to them that they are biased against the person that made the suggestion.

A leader cannot afford this level of resentment, and should swallow their pride. Good ideas don't care about you, and they don't care about what you think of the person suggesting it.

Put simply, if I had an arch enemy (which I don't!), and person had a great idea, I would immediately accept and implement it.

I genuinely don't care about the source: good ideas can exist independently of politics, in fact they must.

Hang on tightly, let go lightly

I work with a lot of software engineers. In terms of the common personality traits I see, they are all very intelligent, hard-working, and creative at problem solving. Actually they are a joy to work with.

Sometimes however my team mates can become too invested in an idea, a technology, or a process. It often reminds me of one of my favourite quotes from the movie "The Croupier", staring Clive Owen, when the protagonist Jack says:

"Hang on tightly, let go lightly."

Jack (played by Clive Owen) becomes addicted to watching gamblers lose their money each night in the London casino where he works as a croupier. You could say they are refusing to let go of a bad idea, and it is literally costing them.

A gambler on a losing streak is a great metaphor for holding onto a bad idea for too long: they believe they need just one more roll, or one more good hand, to enable them to change their losing streak and recover their losses to date. It's an addictive cycle.

Sunk cost fallacies

This toxic cycle is often referred to as a "sunk cost fallacy":

"the idea that a company or organisation is more likely to continue with a project if they have already invested a lot of money, time, or effort in it, even when continuing is not the best thing to do" [2]

It is otherwise known as "throwing good money after bad". It's a trap, and is irrational. A person or team stuck in this trap feels over-committed to a certain strategy, to the extent that they feel unable to stop, even though they know it is harmful.

Stopping a bad strategy early is optimal, late is bad, but not at all could be fatal.

Sunk costs are cheaper when you stop spending.

Listen to your chorus

To the leaders listening to this, I would like to ask you a question: do you trust your team?

If your team are on your side, they will tell you when they think you are going in the wrong direction. They may have some insight that you lack, some experience deeper than yours, or some instincts that are stronger than yours.

Why would you ignore that?

The people around you who care about you will speak up when they see you about to make a mistake. These are your "chorus": if they are all saying the same thing at the same time, then you must listen to them. If you decide to do your own thing regardless, that's up to you, but at the very least you should listen.

Conversely, people who do not wish to see you succeed will keep quiet when they see you about to make a mistake. Again, this shows you why your chorus are largely on your side.

As a leader, if nobody is in my chorus I start to get paranoid: either everything I am doing is great and everyone agrees with me (but this is highly unlikely!), people are too afraid to speak up, or people are happy to see me fall flat on my face after I fail.

None of those situations are desirable: a lack of people speaking up is a major red flag.

In the movie "The Croupier" I mentioned earlier, Jack never interrupted the gamblers losing their money, as he was happy to see them fail. He had contempt for them.

Emotional investment

Too much emotional investment in an idea is bad. Remember that an idea cannot love you back.

To be a leader, you must be lead by your head firstly, and your heart secondly, especially when it comes to ideas that may no longer be valid. Your attachment to an idea should be based upon reason, and evidence.

As soon as a better idea comes along, you must drop the old one. There is no emotion in this, instead it is dictated by logic.

The only exception is where other people are potentially going to be impacted upon: remember your empathy and your principals. There may be instances when continuing to do something illogical may be required to protect your team mates, until a better alternative becomes available.

When the facts change

I like to passionately defend my ideas in a debate, right up to the time that:

  1. The other person has a better idea or:
  2. The facts that my idea are based upon change, or were just plain wrong.

Then I drop my idea immediately, applying the "hang on tightly, let go lightly" principal, with no ego or other emotional attachment to that.

I had to learn to do this, as it does not come naturally, by arguing well beyond a reasonably point in the past to defend my ideas just because they were "mine", therefore I felt protective towards them.

It reminds me of another more famous quote from the economist John Maynard Keynes:

"When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"

I think we can all practice that.


Lets recap what we have covered today:

  1. A leader should let go of bad ideas, before they become bad implementations.
  2. Arrogant leaders often dismiss an idea based upon the source. They value their own ideas more than those of others. Obviously this is not a good approach.
  3. A leader should never "grudgingly" agree to a good idea.
  4. Good ideas can exist independently of politics, in fact they must.
  5. I love the quote "Hang on tightly, let go lightly". It reminds me that I should hang on tightly to good ideas, right up to the point that they are no longer valid, then I should let them go lightly, without a second thought. As a leader, this can become one of your mantras.
  6. A sunk cost fallacy, or "throwing good money after bad", is often used to describe this situation when someone is tempted to continue to invest in a strategy that is clearly not working. The sooner they stop this, the lower the cost they will incur.
  7. Just like in a Greek tragedy, your team can act as a chorus, warning you of a bad approach. If you trust your team (and you really should), then you should listen to them: they have other perspectives that you may miss.
  8. Too much emotional investment in an idea is bad. Remember that an idea cannot love you back.
  9. We should also remember the famous quote from the economist John Maynard Keynes: "When the facts change, I change my mind."

I hope you enjoyed this episode, and I look forward to covering the next topic in this series with you! In the interim if you want to follow me online, you can find my blog at, or follow me on Twitter @TechLeaderPro.

Thanks for your time, take care and have a great week!


[1] : My original blog post on this topic (2019) -,-let-go-lightly

[2] : Sunk cost fallacy -


File details: 13.6 MB MP3, 09 mins 27 secs duration.

Title music is "Still Cold" by Crystal Shards, licensed via


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