3 ways to help great ideas thrive

Created by CJ Alvarado
April 11, 2014

“It’s the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then there’s a pause, and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.” Tony Benn

In 1975, a Kodak engineer invented the first digital camera which captured low resolution black and white images and transferred them to a TV. He then took his idea and pitched it to various leaders in the company.

He called his invention “filmless photography.”

After taking a few pictures of the attendees at the meeting and displaying them on the TV, the questions started to roll.

“Why would anyone ever want to view his/her pictures on a TV?”

“How would you store these images?”

“What does an electronic photo album look like?”

The engineer later recalled management’s view on the whole thing:

“It was filmless photography,” he said, “so management’s reaction was “that’s cute—but don’t tell anyone about it.”

The idea got snuffed. As brilliant as Kodak Labs were in their hay day, unfortunately, the real innovative products languished there. Years later, as Kodak started to lose its grip on the industry, the company was thus described:

It seems like Kodak had developed antibodies against anything that might compete with film.

It would be almost 25 years before Kodak could find success in the digital camera space. It’s unfortunate, considering they had it in their grasp back in 1975.

Like the human body, companies develop antibodies. They exist to naturally identify and neutralize foreign objects — even when those objects are great ideas. They snuff a lot of bad stuff too which is great but how do we ensure they attack the right things?

Here are three things I’ve tried in my startups to help great ideas see the light of day. 

1. Focus on the Why

I think most people I know have heard of Simon’s talk on the WHY. If not, go check it out on TED. What I’ll say here, is a lot of companies get entrenched in WHAT they do and when market demands shift and changes occur they have a really hard time responding quickly enough. Focusing on WHY you do what you do, helps you iterate on WHAT you do appropriately. Kodak forgot they were in the “Capturing Moments” business, not the film business.

2. Give the Gentle Push

I stole this next point from @leylandjacob and think its a good one. He tells a story of a restaurant owner who worked tirelessly training his staff on how he wanted tables at his restaurant to look. Plates, silverware and salt shakers all in a specific place. No matter how much time and effort he put into this, the tables were never quite as he wanted them. So eventually he had a meltdown, lined his staff up and threw salt shakers at them. I’m kidding! He didn’t do that.

Instead, he walked to the table with the out of place salt and pepper shakers and gently pushed them where they belonged. He then went on with his work. In the restaurant business lots of things move the salt shakers. After all, things are moving quickly—the folks bussing the tables, the waiters and waitresses, the customers — all bump tables and have an affect on the salt shakers. Instead of belaboring the point he employed the gentle push to influence others toward his aim. Soon, the staff picked up on this and applied it themselves.

Keeping your people, processes and companies from killing great ideas requires the gentle push to value new ideas. This needs to be modeled at all levels in the organization. At my company, Snippet, we apply this in meetings,during design sprints and even during games of ping pong. They don’t require long and dramatic meetings because in the end, like the restaurant, lots of things move the salt shakers.

3. Don’t Believe the Hype…about yourself that is.

Heavily insulated by past successes and financial resources, Kodak maybe didn’t have any real reason to detect a threat on the horizon. Unfortunately, that also meant an inability to detect the opportunity outside of film. When we look into history they certainly weren’t alone. The same could be said about the railroad tycoons many who had opted out of investing in early stage alternative modes of transportation. The same is true for anyone that believes their own hype for too long.

The benefits of moving beyond the hype puts our feet back on the ground — back on strong work ethic _AND strong _ethic of work. That’s always served people and companies the best in the long run.

Note: The next time your group is snuffing good new ideas or crosses the line into hubris, play a little “Don’t Believe the Hype” by Public Enemy. That’ll get their attention.

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