Having an idea is often a painful and frustrating experience. The people who don’t turn away from you often ignore you; it can be hard to tell which is worse. I didn’t really understand why people reject ideas until I was on the front lines of a technology company collapse. It was a company that was full of great ideas and drive: the things that should bring success. But it invested heavily in great ideas that didn’t pan out, and doesn’t exist today.
This motivated me to try to understand what happens in companies that are sustainable in their innovation: that have great ideas but are not torn apart by them. I worked out a pattern that you could use to govern innovation in a sustainable way. To make sure that you don’t commit too hard to something that tears you apart. It’s now time for me to publish that model, so here’s the basics of it.
The post-innovation world is a place you’ve never been to before
When you come up with an idea that is new, you’ve got something that will change reality in some way. If the idea is powerful enough, it’s going to take you to a place that you’ve never been to before. If you’re going to manage the political implications of the newness, then you have to think about the different kinds of people that there are in your social landscape, and how they react to new ideas. You want the right kind of attention at the right time. Because the changed landscape that your idea will create has dangers, and you won’t know what they are to begin with.
The process of getting people to join you in a new idea is a lot like the process of getting people to join you in a newly discovered and unpopulated landscape. So, when I talk about pioneers and settlers further in, what I’m referring to is the way that the new landscape is tamed and becomes more hospitable.
This is a governance framework. The idea is to recognize where the innovation is at, and to push the innovator towards the actions that best promote the idea. There are lots of judgement calls that need to be made in the process of using and installing this framework.
In a nutshell, what I think you should do is:
Have an idea, which means explicitly formulating a hypothesis.
Test the idea, understanding that most ideas don’t survive the simplest testing without being changed.
Explore the possibilities, because one test result is not enough.
Recruit pioneers, hardy souls who enjoy being among the first, and have a high pain threshold.
Recruit settlers, people who enjoy something new, provided that it’s safe.
Consolidate as late as possible, building walls and regulations once you understand the landscape.
Refine your structures once the landscape is stable, and things have become boring enough that it’s time to have a new idea.
Have an idea
Ideas are great.
Ideas have an opportunity to be perfect, in a way that reality can never be. The temptation is to refine and polish the idea, to make it shine beautifully. And if your objective is emotional comfort, then perhaps the stage to remain in is the idea stage.
But if your objective is to make some kind of profitable change in your world, then you need to get out of the idea stage as fast as you can. Let’s say your idea is “We could build a castle.” Great, that’s an idea. If you can imagine a way to test it, then it’s time for the next stage.
Most ideas don’t work. Your idea probably won’t work.
The objective during the testing phase is to keep your losses manageable. You want to learn about what happens to this idea when it encounters the real world as cheaply an inconspicuously as possible. This means avoiding publicity. This is difficult, because you’re going to want to talk about your awesome new idea. You are going to make a mess of things. Make that mess in such a way that it doesn’t create trouble for anyone.
Yay! You built the thing! Well done! Now build it again.
Can you build it again? Does it come out the same way when you build it again? Does it hold together? Once is luck. Twice is coincidence. Three times is a pattern. When you apply your new idea, can you predict your success with confidence? Are you actually succeeding (getting more out of it than you have to put into it)? You should be able to get it to work profitably on your own before you get anyone else involved. Better to waste your own time than to waste everyone’s time. Try different methods and techniques when you don’t have to explain to people why it is that ‘this one doesn’t look the same as the other one’.
Pioneers will learn, but mainly they will teach you
Your idea works. You can reliably reproduce it, and you know when you will succeed and when you will fail. Now it’s time to face the danger that is other people. Grab a few adventurous souls who are not afraid to fail, and get ready to discover all the things you should have told them.
You will be amazed at just how brilliantly people can be blind to the obvious, misunderstand the simplest instructions, and attempt things that are doomed to spectacular failure.
Fortunately, you explored before you recruited pioneers. This means you’re able to say “If you do that, this will happen,” and this will help to prevent the worst disasters. You have a track record that includes success, and you’re able to get it to work for yourself reliably. Some of your pioneers will misunderstand you in ways that make things better than the way you were doing it. That’s awesome, and it should be rewarded. As you teach them, and they teach each other, and generate feedback, you start to understand what it takes to communicate the idea successfully.
Bring on the settlers!
And now for the moment you’ve been desperate for since the beginning. It’s time to tell as many people as possible about how awesome your idea is, and the wonders and delights that await them when they join you in the majestic future.
And the good news is that you’re ready. You’ve been there, and you know that the majestic future is not a mirage. You’ve taken other people there, and they told you why they liked it (which wasn’t the reason you went there in the first place). And you know how to steer people away from the obvious catastrophic mistakes.
Except that now, you’re going to have to face a whole crowd of people. You won’t have time to tell each one individually “No, wait, don’t build a sandcastle where it’s already wet.” You need to tell them in advance not to do that. Some of them won’t trust you personally: they might respond better to one of those pioneers you trained earlier. Some of them will have objections, and you’ll need the expanded understanding of the pioneering effort to be able to handle those objections well. (Because most of the objections will have merit.)
You might even need to turn people away. Perhaps when you were pioneering, there was someone who just couldn’t make it work, because of their particular situation, or their ways of looking at the world. Being able to say “I don’t think this is likely to work out well for you” can save a world of heartache, once you’re dealing with people who don’t like getting hurt.
Consolidate after settling
Up until this point, you’ve been getting things wrong a lot. Your idea wasn’t quite right. Then your methods weren’t right. Then you didn’t know how to explain it. Then you didn’t know how to explain it to a large group. But once you hit consolidation, you’re getting things right and explaining things right, and you know how to explain it before you have any idea about who you’re dealing with. That’s the point where you’re ready to write it down as a set of rules.
The natural desire for many of us is to start with blueprints. To protect the wonder and beauty of our original idea from people who don’t understand it. But if your idea is genuinely new, then you’re the one who doesn’t understand it. It’s not until you have the engineering knowledge, and you understand the needs of the construction crew, that you can write a specification of how to build a castle.
Premature specification is a brief moment of satisfaction that is invariably followed by limp performance and dissatisfied stakeholders. Get it right before you write it down.
Refinement is innovation
The reason you write it down is so that you can look at it clearly. The value in looking at it clearly is that this will help you (and others) to come up with ideas. When people come up with ideas and they don’t have a reality to refer to, they tend to get scared, and to imagine all the ways in which the new possibilities will hurt them. (Pioneers are like stunt performers in this regard: they have a tolerance for injury that sets them apart from most people.)
Fortunately, you didn’t consolidate until after everyone had a reality they could refer to. Which means that their ideas are about how to make things better, instead being about how to stop things getting worse.
What do you do when you have an idea about how to make things better? You might consider finding a way to test it as unobtrusively and cheaply as possible. Then you might check to make sure your initial success wasn’t a fluke. Probably best to help a few adventurous people succeed before telling the whole world how awesome it is. And perhaps don’t write a rulebook until you’ve found a way that really does work for everyone.
Speaking of which, you might think that the idea expressed in this article is pretty good. It’s an idea. I’d suggest you keep it in your head where nobody can see it until you’ve tested it in an unobtrusive and inexpensive way. Maybe test it more than once?
Of course, for me, this isn’t just an idea: it’s something that I’ve used in my personal and professional life for several years now. Sometimes I haven’t used it; and I tend to regret the times I haven’t used it. I’ve explained it to some people, and they seem to be using it successfully too.
This is not a rulebook. But I think it is time to tell the entire world that I came up with something that seems useful, and to invite them to try it out. If you do try it out, I’d be grateful to know how it works out for you.