“Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If they’re any good you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats” – Howard Aiken
There are many bad reasons why people hate new ideas – and a few good ones. Scott Berkun explores both in his book The Myths of Innovation.
In the chapter “People love new ideas” (note the irony), Berkun exposes the myth that good ideas are recognized and supported early on. The reality is quite the opposite. When Alexander Graham Bell showed Western Union (which operated a national network of telegraph cables) his telephone prototype, they kindly showed him the door. Why? Because businesses are made up of people, and people have a lot vested in the preservation and extension of the status quo:
“It’s both a psychological and economic phenomenon: as people and companies age, they have more to lose. They’re not willing to spend years chasing dreams or to endanger what they’ve worked so hard to build. Attitudes focused on security, risk aversion, and optimization of the status quo eventually become dominant positions. […] Having succeeded, their strongest desire is not to find new ideas to conquer, but to protect the success they’ve already earned.”
Clayton Christensen explored the concept in his bestseller The Innovator’s Dilemma. As a result of that book there’s a general awareness of the tendency, and many modern enterprises organize themselves against it. For example, Facebook has posters and stickers on their campus stating “This Journey is 1% Finished”, and they purposefully have concrete floors to preserve that sense of openness to the next big thing for them.
The better reason why new ideas are often rejected is because it’s hard to know what’s a good idea early on. The only way to separate the good from the bad is through experience and real validation. For example, in it’s infancy Google tried to sell itself to Excite for a mere $1M. That because they thought they had a better way to rank websites, but they hadn’t realized that the best search engine would know the most about what people were looking for (aka intent), and that they could grow a money tree by auctioning off that information (Adwords). Similarly Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak tried to sell their early Apple computer designs to HP and Atari. They knew the designs were good, but they didn’t know how good.
“New ideas demand new perspectives, and it takes time to understand, much less judge, a point of view.”
In the modern era, where new value is being created tackling unrealized needs instead of unmet needs, the only way to know if an idea is good is through real validation. This is the driving force behind the rise of the Lean Startup movement and it’s emphasis on prototyping, and real customer feedback.
Which leaves us with the final challenge: how to know if a new idea is any good?
My current feeling is to stop talking about ideas. They’re too vacuous. I don’t want ideas. I do want identified problems that real people have. Bring me stories of customers with real problems. And bring me prototypes of solutions that have been put in front of these customers. Then, together, we can start to validate if they’re any good.