A million ideas are born every day, but only few become products or services, passing the lion’s den inside an organization. The million dollar question is: what does it take?

This article is not about how ideas are born. And it is not even about the hard to understand market mechanisms that explain why some innovations succeed whereas others fail. This article is about the stage in between: from the moment it was named by someone until the moment it becomes a tangible product in some form. Because in that stage, ideas need to be embraced by organizations and stakeholders.

The valley of death: ideas and innovations

valley-of-deathFirst of all, I like to underscore that an innovation concerns ideas that turned into something real. Although we tend to label ideas as innovative, those things only exist within our minds or on paper. Innovations concerns ideas that are inspiring so that organizations commit themselves onto the idea. Commitment is beyond saying something is a nice idea; commitment implies that people are assigned to make it real, budget  is allocated and a team is organized. Problem is: to have an organization commit itself to a fragile idea is difficult. The stage is sometimes labeled the ‘valley of death’ , a metaphor to describe the relative lack of resources and expertise in this area of development. Many good ideas never get beyond this stage of being promising, interesting or whatever, without anyone truly supporting it. As a senior designer inside a large high tech R&D I also had several times the frustrating experience that a good idea (according to me) incited much turmoil and excitement, but ended as a promising paper plan gathering dust. Is it merely the quality of the idea itself? In time I came to believe it is not just the value of the idea itself. Of course, poor ideas never get far. But also excellent ideas need something additional to pass the valley of death inside an organization. Maybe this is best illustrated by the much contested story on the invention of the iPod by Tony Fadell, who developed  his ideas inside other companies, yet failed to get his ideas across. It was not the quality of the idea itself, as his ideas turned out to be a gamechanger, when Apple hired him.  The question is: why do some ideas survive in the survival of fittest, and do others fail? I want to highlight two aspects that are seldom named in innovation literature: the resilience and  aesthetics of ideas.


Darwin’s famous phase ‘the survival of the fittest’ concerns those animals that are “most adapted for the immediate local environment”,  and not (as many believe) the strongest. My personal experiences with innovation recalls this principle of resilience: ideas that make it in time include adaptations to the “immediate local environment”: the organization and/or the environment the organization operates in. Often it is mentioned that ideas that did not make it were ‘too far ahead in time’. But another way of looking at this is that the inventors of these ideas simply weren’t capable to adapt their ideas. Ingenuous ideas seldom will have sufficient strength to stand on their own, more likely they need to pliable to the organizational context. For example, in a start up budget inevitably is limited. Consequently, expensive tooling for plastic parts simply isn’t an option, and so a design for a new product that requires high tooling cost is a no-go. Even if it would look like an Apple product. Likewise proposing an idea for a new service inside a product-minded organization is like selling ice cream in Alaska. The organization simply cannot judge the value of the idea, nor sell it convincingly to others. That does not mean that the service itself is a bad idea, or that the organization is ‘stupid’. Rather it means that the idea needs to be adapted somewhat to better fit the context. Consider a product-service combination instead. Many organizations that successfully made the step from products to services actually include a piece of tangible hardware in their services!

Of course that does not mean that the idea is entirely changed. When Darwin discusses the survival of fittest he is not describing how birds turned into reptiles within few generations. Rather he discusses how the beak of finches is adapted to the local food sources well. Likewise good ideas need to be adapted somewhat, but without changing entirely. Point is that people who stick rigorously to their idea and who consider any proposed alteration an item that compromises their ideas will merely see their idea stranded. Whereas others who listen and are willing to incorporate other insights will safely herd their ideas through an organization. Despite our romantic love of visionary leaders who stick to their ideas ‘come hell or high water’, an organization simply knows more than an individual.

The beauty of an idea

Second, ideas that make it often have an aesthetical quality. Put simply: ideas need to be expressed is such a way that it is convincing, if not persuasive. The philosopher John Dewey once mentioned that in science we embrace those theories that are brief and elegant. If someone can explain a phenomena with a formula that takes a page in a book, it never becomes popular -even if it is a well validated assertion. Instead, we love the E=MC2 kind of theory: brief, elegant, exciting. This is no different for innovative ideas. If someone comes up with a technical solution that is hard to grasp, whereby it remains unclear what kind of product or service is involved and above all, a misty business model, then the odds are poor. If someone comes up with a brief and compelling narrative, a beautifully crafted sketch or model and a succinct business model, then he will experience much interest.  Ideas should not be articulated by means of bullet lists and piecharts, but expressed by means of captivating stories and compelling images of ‘what it might be’ in an almost poetic way: the only language we all understand. It enables us to commit ourselves wholeheartedly.

teamcognitionThereby two ingredients are required. The first is an emotionally convincing problem setting. Often someone having an innovative idea experienced a kind of problem already for a long time. Consequently, once he develops a solution it makes perfect sense to him or her. However, others did not experience the same problem and thus find it hard to understand the intrinsic qualities of an idea. Just imagine that someone came up with the idea of banning CFC’s before we all discovered the hole in the ozone layer: it would seem idiotic. Any good idea needs to start with a concise, emotionally troubling example of the problem at hand. A friend of mine once convinced the board of a large insurance company of a serious organizational problem by letting them listen to a recorded  conversation between a 12 year-old calling in for her hospitalized unconscious mother, and one of the employees of the help desk. The latter had to turn her down because the girl did not have the required information.  It was a smack in the face, arousing anger, but provided the frame that was needed to get an idea landed.

The charm of the skeleton

charm of the skeletonThe second ingredient is showing the essence of the idea and nothing more. I name that ‘the charm of the skeleton’. Imagine you are on building site and you only see the structure of a house. It enables to have a open-ended dialogue with the architect and others about what the house will be in time: what the layout of the kitchen will be , how much light will be in the living room, what the colors might be. At the same time the structure already pinpoints some crucial aspects, like where the kitchen will be. The structure both provides strong guidance on key aspects and is sufficiently open ended so that others can dream and imagine. In my study on teamcognition I found that good ideas have a vigor and a charm that is persuasive s that others can commit themselves; leaves ample space to explore additional ideas and is sufficiently constraint to provide clear boundaries. In the book ‘Made to stick’ a wonderful example is provided. Palm Pilot founder Jeff Hawkins, to counteract the tendency towards feature creep in his team, would walk around with a block of wood that was carved in exactly the size and shape of the original Palm Pilot. It contained the bare essence and left open many other aspects.

  1. Pingback: Framing a sense of direction. | Design in Teams

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