Why do some things get invented while others don’t?

Looking back over a few decades of dealing with innovators, large and small, there appear to be a few reasons why some ideas – and people – make it while others don’t. This is not an exhaustive list. Neither does it take into account factors such as finding a large enough problem, financial issues, regulation or a host of other things innovators need to worry about. This is merely a subjective summary of why some people seem to succeed and others don’t, especially when it comes to making critical decisions about new ideas, products, services and strategies.

One reason that many people fail to get their ideas off the ground is that they sink too much of themselves into a project. They continue to back fixed strategies and designs well past the point of no return in a futile quest to get their sunken time and especially their hard earned cash back.

In contrast, smart innovators practice fast failure. When projects reach a point of diminishing returns they get out fast to avoid losing even more time and money – and start again in a totally different way. This trait of not letting go or adapting is especially prevalent with individual inventors. These individuals will not adapt their idea, or change their vision, even when doing so might attract investors or make the final route to market so much easier.

Sometimes dogged determination and persistence do pay off. Indeed, history is littered with examples of might be called ‘endurance invention’, where heroic individuals have struggled, often for years (even decades), before their ideas finally become accepted. James Dyson, the inventor of the bag-less vacuum cleaner, Trevor Baylis, the inventor of the windup radio, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and even Colonel Sanders are well-known examples.

But these stories are somewhat misleading. More often than not, a desire for absolute control and total secrecy over and above flexibility, pragmatism and collaboration kills good ideas stone dead.

At the extreme, individual inventors will not share their ideas with anyone because they fear that their idea will be stolen or misused. This does indeed happen. But no non-disclosure agreement will prevent this unless you are prepared to spend staggering sums of money on lawyers. This is also a very negative mindset.

Yes, there are people out there that will rob you blind, but most people will not. Most people want to help you. Moreover, you cannot do everything yourself. At some point you will have to let go and let others craft and polish your idea, especially if your aim is scale or making a dent in the universe.

What else goes wrong? In my experience, a second reason that good ideas go bad is access to too much time and money. With small firms austerity and necessity can be the father and mother of invention. If you don’t have much money you are forced to think. But with large organizations, and indeed institutions, too much time and too much money can be fatal.

Large companies are generally risk-averse perfectionists. They are inherently conservative (often rightly so), but the downside is they often focus too much on their legacy idea or business model and move at a snail’s pace when it comes to anything new. They move so slowly, in fact, that many a market opportunity will have expired by the time a ‘perfect’ idea is launched. Most large firms inhabit this terrain, which is why they are regularly outmanoeuvred by smaller, less constrained, start-ups with a more flexible view of the future.

Linked to this thought is the idea that people behave very differently with ideas they own compared to ideas they don’t. If overcommitted individual inventors not letting go is one problem, people in large companies not having any skin whatsoever in the innovation game is another. After all, why fight to the death for an idea if there’s no personal benefit attached, or if there is a chance that support or investment will be withdrawn once a senior decision maker or supporter moves upward or outward.

A third reason that good ideas go nowhere is that our brains are designed to deceive. Essentially, all information and experience gets a ‘tag’ and is stored away deep inside our heads. However, such information and experience do not sit quietly on the sidelines, waiting patiently to be called up when they will be most useful. Ideas are connected to other stored ideas and we use them to make decisions, judgements and to cross-fertilise our thinking.

But occasionally these connections let us down. Sometimes memories attach themselves to information that results in false pattern recognition or understanding. We think that we understand a problem or a solution based on previous experience, when in fact we do not. An example might be Segway. This was a technically brilliant idea, but I suspect that Dean Kamen failed to see what was hidden in plain sight. Namely that the Segway was dangerous on the freeway and dangerous on the sidewalk and that people don’t like talking to people that are higher off the ground than they are.

Such misinformation and alignment links closely with confirmation bias, which is a fourth reason that things can go from good to bad very quickly. In short, our conscious minds seek out information that will support or confirm our existing beliefs or hypotheses, while our subconscious blocks out any information that might argue against these thoughts. This is a reason why future predictions tend to heavily bias toward the present order.

A fifth and final reason for failure is egocentric bias. The issue here is that we usually think that we are right. This isn’t generally a problem with sole inventors or companies with just one employee, but with teams – or marriages – you can imagine the consequences. Everyone in a team has an opinion about what should be done and spends most of their time ensuring that any contrasting or dissenting opinion in silenced.

Can anything else go wrong? You bet. The list is almost endless to the point where one wonders how anything new gets invented at all. So I will end with just a few ways that you can stop good ideas going bad.

1. Be open-minded and pragmatic. Being broadly right is always better than being precisely wrong – or as the Nike slogan says: “Just do it”

2. Create a sense of urgency. If things start to go wrong, or get bogged down, apply the principle of half the time and half the money. If this doesn’t work halve things again. And if this doesn’t work try giving someone absolute power, one direct report to the CEO and no budget.

3. As Grouch Marx once said” A four-year-old child could understand this. Quick, get me a four-year-old child”. So find a (slightly older) child and explain your problem or solution. Do they get it? If not you’ve not explained it properly and/or you’ve made everything too complicated.

4. Similarly, seek out the opinions of disinterested outsiders. If you can’t find a child ask your mum or a random stranger. What do they think? What would they do?

5. Finally, remember that it is always better to fail whilst daring greatly. Ones place in history should never be with those timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat. (Or put another way: it’s usually easier to beg for forgiveness than seek legal permission).

This entry was posted in Innovation. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *