Jason Bell

@j_jason_bell

The Ideator’s Dilemma

Photo by Akshar Dave on Unsplash

People resist change. Innovations change things. People resist innovations. Forgive me if this is obvious to you. It sure doesn’t seem obvious to many people who talk about innovation.

What people often want from an innovation is an easy win-win: an idea that is creative and will ‘disrupt’ or ‘revolutionize’ and industry, along with a clear execution path that leads to profitability. The problem is, if you come up with a radical new idea, even if it’s good, people usually think you are an idiot.

There is a really tricky moving-goalposts problem with new products. Before an idea catches on, people think it’s stupid, but after it catches on, similar ideas get lame really fast. Uber was amazing, and then all of the ideas hatched from Uber’s model were instantaneously seen as derivative. I overhead someone (a supposed innovation expert) saying about his students “can’t they come up with anything better than Uber for X?”

Well, we are cruel to each other in society about ideas. We don’t believe stuff will work, until it works, and then immediately we all knew it was predestined to work the whole time. Donald Trump looked like a harmless lunatic, and now all the time I see explanations of “why Trump won.” Come on. The crash of 2008, the success of Apple, you know what I mean.

Indulge me while I drive this home a bit more. If you have an idea, and it is really new and creative, then almost necessarily it will be something (most) people haven’t thought of before. When you pitch this type of idea to someone, there is a strong ego-driven chain reaction:

  1. “That is really unconventional.”
  2. “I didn’t think of it. If it’s a good idea, what does that say about me relative to the person pitching it?”
  3. Discomfort
  4. “If it’s a good idea, someone else has probably done it.”
  5. Googling
  6. “Yes! Here it is. That’s not creative.” OR “Nobody has done it. It must be stupid.”

The social problem we have is that this chain works, in that it keeps people safe. Most crazy sounding ideas will actually fail. From an individual perspective, it’s a great strategy to be down on everything. It does, however, prevent something that people say they want: radical innovation.

Crazy ideas

Moonshots, that’s what some people call radical ideas these days. Google restructured into Alphabet partly to have flexibility to pursue moonshots. Tyler Cowen, a prominent economist, is heading up a fund to back moonshots.

I don’t have enough information to form a strong opinion about moonshots, but I have a hunch. I think that when you deliberately look for them, you probably end up in the same trap described above. You start to look for slam-dunk kinds of moonshots. Things that sound crazy but in a not-actually-crazy way.

Remember how we went through a period (maybe we’re still there) of using words like “nerd” as backdoor compliments? “I’m such a nerd” translated to “I’m smart.” Also, “geeking out” meant “having fun being an expert.” It smacked of insincerity. People who said it were not really nerds, they were socially self-aware. This will probably happen with moonshots. It will be a way to signal that you’re taking big risks on far-out ideas. But honest-to-goodness moonshots sound totally insane. Even if you were running a fund looking for them, you may turn them down. “We need some expectation of return, don’t we? This isn’t a moonshot, it’s just stupid.”

There is another filter that applies, which is that people like Elon Musk (who is pursuing moonshots both figuratively and literally) probably won’t show up to a moonshot fund.

Hard vs. weird

There is a muddying of variables, which I haven’t addressed yet, and I should spend some time on it. An idea that is unconventional is not necessarily difficult to implement, and vice-versa. Hard things are distinct from weird things. Good innovations very often are both hard and weird.

This makes good innovations difficult because you need a plausible story to tell yourself. You also need resources, which usually means convincing somebody else (cofounder, investor, employee) that your idea is not as hard or weird as it sounds. So you need a story to tell others. I call this the belief gap.

Really radical ideas, the ones that are both hard and weird, lead to a double belief gap. Let’s do a quick experiment. I came up with two weird, hard ideas. I’ll share them with you, and you can observe your reaction. First, “A sky tattoo. A permanent image, in the sky.” That one doesn’t even have a foreseeably useful outcome. Another one: “Cut openings through the Andes so clouds make it through to the Atacama.” That one, if implemented, might have a useful purpose of eliminating a desert. Did you experience a belief gap?

Ideas in the weird + hard zone are just not going to fly that well in presentation. They are doubly risky: they require lots of resources and are more likely to fail. They are easy to dismiss. Yet, that is exactly what gives them incredible potential to be innovative.

Does an idea need to be weird and hard to be good? No, but ideas which are good, easy, and not weird aren’t in large supply, as far as I can tell.

Have I heard this before?

What I’m describing may sound just like The Innovator’s Dilemma, but it isn’t. The Innovator’s Dilemma comes later in the process, after the innovation has been implemented in some form. The problem there is that immature technologies seem like crappy investments relative to established technologies. You’ll lose money in the short term if you adopt them. Eventually, though, they take off and ‘disrupt’ whatever you’re doing. In contrast, the problem I’m describing, The Ideator’s Dilemma, is that things which sound hard and weird are probably not worth investing in, except sometimes they really, totally are.

Ways out?

Some possible solutions to this dilemma.

  1. Back founders, not ideas
  2. Weird people
  3. Thick-skinned people
  4. Low-cost testing
  5. Serendipity

They can, and often do, all combine. Some implications: investment firms that deliberately back founders are apt to end up with more radical portfolios. Weird people and thick-skinned people should be disproportionately more likely to come up with radical innovations. Lowering the costs of testing radical ideas, and understanding serendipity, ought to be really worthwhile.

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