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Is “the big idea” dead?

The last full-time gig I had, my boss always used to say “There are no new ideas.”

Decent shot at making an argument there. If you look around, a ton of products and platforms basically feel like the same shit we’ve already seen, applied a bit differently. Remember the jokes about “the Uber of…?”

That’s all called “choice overload” to an extent. Digital made this a lot easier. You can rush into a space and scale it much faster than in the 1980s. So there are a lot of essentially worthless competitors still getting funding, etc. And because people make decisions best when they have a frame of reference, it’s easy to pitch someone and say “We are the Amazon of … ”

It can feel, as a result, like big ideas are dead.

But isn’t this the supposed era of innovation?

Well, actually, it’s not. It’s the most bureaucratic time in history. 

So that’s fun.

And here’s some more fun-ness, courtesy of Stanford research:

Specifically, the number of Americans engaged in R&D has jumped by more than twentyfold since 1930 while their collective productivity has dropped by a factor of 41.

Those numbers seem to be moving in the wrong directions. So what’s up?

We’re good at making product, but not solving big problems

“Big ideas” would ideally mean solving big problems. We don’t really do that. Education? Environment? Gender equality? Pay transparency? Empathy in adults? Naw. I want to make widgets and get my nut. If you just want to crank product and try to get rich, you’re gonna end up copying some existing models. Reduction in big ideas.

We made innovation, strategy, and planning into buzzwords

Not everything is innovative. It, by definition, cannot be. Companies try to set it up so that if Johnny in Operations takes a shit successfully by himself, he’s suddenly “innovative.” That’s not how it works. Companies often miss the real innovative idea because they’ve choked everything in process and buzzwords. As that has happened, this has also happened: 95 percent of employees can’t name the strategy of where they work. How can you potentially make an innovative contribution to your employer if you have legitimately no clue what your employer is even trying to accomplish?

Incentive structures

If you have a good idea, why wouldn’t you go chase that yourself? That’s what happens with almost every entrepreneur, from TheSkimm to the light bulb. Why give it to the man when you know the man just gonna take more of the rewards for the org and himself? Incentive structures in most businesses seem to have been designed by a third-grader. They force teamwork and collaboration on us, then reward 2 people out of the 10 on the team. The other 8? Back into project management hell. It might be your time eventually! It certainly doesn’t encourage big idea innovation, and it don’t encourage a world where you’d want to develop your big idea inside an org. Go your own way. Isn’t that a song?

Bad management

Middle managers are often the gatekeepers of ideas. Ideas can’t get from the bottom to the decision-makers without those middle guys vetting that. Well, problem is, managers judge new ideas poorly and often let their own ego get in the way. (“This might threaten my position.”) It’s hard for the best stuff to float to the check-writers when the middle is jammed with small-dick incompetence to the hilt.

Over-reliance on “it has to be presented this way”

The best stuff often comes together in foolish, sloppy ways. (See also: relationships.) It’s not neat and orderly. Few things in life really are, if we’re being honest. Problem in orgs: you want to get an idea out there, you gotta follow 27 processes, check 19 boxes, and prototype it in some way that makes the management tiers comfortable. That’s all bullshit. It’s just designed to make those management tiers feel happy/in control of something, because they all secretly know their lives are a meaningless blip in the world. You want to hit a big idea? Many will think you’re off your rocker before you do it. Go back to 1993 and pitch the iPhone. You’d get laughed out of 100 rooms. Go back to the Middle Ages and pitch the Internet. They’d behead you. Processes need to be sloppy and confusing and full of woe and left turns, but we want them to be perfect before they get into the room. We miss out in this way of thinking.

So are big ideas dead?

Naw. I’m sure the world will be very different in 30 years, powered no doubt by the tech stack. Big ideas will keep coming, even if they’re just a tweak on another idea that somehow takes off. But are we doing a good job of letting big ideas emerge within our bureaucratic walls? No. And that’s what needs to change, ultimately: we love and deify the tech stack, but that thing is doing just fine running away from us. What we need to change are our relationships to people, decisions, new ideas, development of people, etc. Tech is leaving those in the dust, and that’s not a great picture for employee relationships, idea generation, career progression, or anything else.

 

 

Ted Bauer

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