I’m going to use the term “invention ideas” in this post a few times, but in reality, what I’m saying could apply to any idea. Here’s what we know, per research: managers are usually not very good judges of new ideas. But because of how most companies are set up, managers are usually the front line for “vetting” an idea before it gets up the chain to be considered in terms of “Will we write a check around this?” As a result of this organizational structure, many potentially innovative ideas die in the flood. Still, somehow, at every annual meeting, an executive manages to stand up and talk about how great and innovative the past year was.
We all know the big business school case studies here: Steve Ballmer was running Microsoft and could have had the iPhone before Apple did. That didn’t happen. Ballmer is rich and all that, but professionally I’m sure many view him as a “failure” (ha, definitions of success) and Steve Jobs certainly ran circles around him when they were rival CEOs. There are other examples. I’ve heard Blockbuster could have had streaming. Now they’re dormant.
So while a term I’ll use is “invention ideas,” the concept can apply to any idea. This question of “How do you get an idea to catch on?” seems like one of the major issues of our time to me. We’ve got noise everywhere these days. (Most of it currently about Trump.) How do you cut through all the noise and the bullshit and actually get at these invention ideas or new revenue streams? Here’s one approach.
Invention ideas and foolishness
Generally, people don’t want to be considered a fool. If your mother tells you that you’re “acting a fool,” that’s bad. In the simplest terms, most of work is a quest not to be seen as incompetent, so again, people want to avoid this “fool” label.
But in this article from Stanford called “Six Ways To Be A Better Leader” (you’d hope!), this is up near the top:
Geniuses make mistakes. Einstein’s work, for example, contained arithmetic errors; Bob Dylan doesn’t always hit the right note, argues Barnett. But their genius is recognized. It’s easy to overlook genius when an idea seems outside the norm. “In the search for genius, if you want genius, look for systems that create foolishness,” he says.
By foolishness, Barnett really means ideas that fall out of the consensus view. If a company only approves ideas that are within the norm, it is likely missing the unconventional but potentially groundbreaking ideas, Barnett says.
Ever heard of homophily?
It’s kind of a synonym for “group think.” It means that a crew of executives or “senior decision-makers” have been together for years. They all secretly resent each other and jockey for bigger bonuses, but on the surface it seems like they agree with each other. If you try to violate “the way it’s always been done,” the company will shoot you down like an old dog. We’ve all worked at someplace similar to this. Core ideas take hold, the execs run with them, and it’s nearly impossible to “pivot” (buzzword alert!) when pivot is necessary. To save face and hit growth targets, these types of companies normally fire 30-40 people (or more!) right before fiscal year close. Great way to do business, ya know?
Companies with a lot of homophily tend to “only approve ideas that are within the norm.” So you’re missing unconventional ideas, which could be a huge revenue stream. Your invention ideas? Probably just a small tweak to what you already had. Ultimately, no one will be impressed, even if your marketing is super glossy. That’s what seems to be happening to Apple right now, but …
Consider the first iPhone
Since the iPhone has been around 10 years and sold over 1 billion, I’d say it’s a good member of the “invention ideas” class. Think back to a few years before the iPhone, or the “smartphone” in general. Now imagine someone pitches you. They are like, “This phone will play music, play games, be your bank, and you can check your email on it.” In 2002, if you said that to someone, you’d get laughed out of 97 of 100 rooms. Most people would probably be like “No time to listen to this asinine idea, I’m so busy as it is!” Well, that asinine idea created billions of dollars and made a bunch of people super rich. It also created ecosystem on top of ecosystem (apps, etc.) and jobs that didn’t exist 8-11 years ago are super high-earning today.
Now, the iPhone is an unicorn example, to be sure. It’s one of the best (not quality-wise, but reach-wise) products of the last 2-3 generations. I used the example because it’s an easy one for invention ideas that were probably once seen as ludicrous. There are others, though. Pokemon Go is a farce on the surface. But it made people money and now everyone is scrambling to have augmented reality in their planning.
Point being: sometimes the dumbest, most foolish, most off-task invention ideas might get you that house in Malibu.
How do we get to better invention ideas, then?
If you just said “purchase an employee suggestion box technology,” I’ll put you through a wall. Rather, this is how you try:
- Ask better questions
- Tap your employees
- Kill off some of your supposed “best” ideas to get to the real zany ones once in a while
- Embrace some things different than you’re used to
- Map out whether you’re solving the right problem
- And seriously, ask more questions
The problem with a lot of work is that it’s task-to-task, urgency-to-urgency. No one takes the time to stop and think about anything, or put things in a broader perspective. If you do that even once in a while, you can get at better ideas and new revenue streams. You need legitimate invention ideas to grow a business. Otherwise it’s just meaningless tweaks, leading to nothing except choice overload. Choice overload deadens the market for everyone, including you. But a real unique idea? That’ll pop. And it might come from the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard at first. Think on it, however, and it might be one of the greatest invention ideas ever to come down the pike.
Anything else you’d add on new products/services, how to get there, and the general concept of invention ideas?