Ideas are cheap

Malcolm Gladwell has a wonderful article in the New Yorker, In the Air: Who says big ideas are rare? that explores the genius phenomenon in innovation.  His main point: genius is often overrated, in that the ideas most geniuses credited with having were already out there.  And, corollary to that, it’s relatively easy to have a good idea if you just take smart people with diverse backgrounds and set them loose on an field or problem that few have focused on before:

Ideas weren’t precious. They were everywhere, which suggested that maybe
the extraordinary process that we thought was necessary for
invention—genius, obsession, serendipity, epiphany—wasn’t necessary at

He illustrates this point with beautiful stories about Nathan Myhrvold’s dinosaur hunts, Bell and Gray’s coinciding patents for the telephone, and an old but timeless study by Ogburn and Thomas of 148 scientific discoveries that were arrived at by multiple people at around the same time.

In the end, Gladwell’s point is that the individual genius may not be the source of novelty–others were thinking the same thoughts–but that the individual genius is a concentrating force that brings these ideas together more frequently and effectively than ordinary smart people. So a genius can have the same ten ideas that it took ten other people to have one at a time…so it’s better to hire the genius than the other ten:

A scientific genius is not a person who does what no one else can do;
he or she is someone who does what it takes many others to do. The
genius is not a unique source of insight; he is merely an efficient
source of insight.

But Gladwell of all people should appreciate that there’s more to an innovation than the idea.  ITNS: It’s the network… Most of the “great” ideas, whether the telephone, the electric light, or mass production, were around in various forms before Bell, Edison, or Ford got to them.  The same can be said for today’s geniuses: Gates, Jobs, Kamen, Page & Brin.  Ford had it right when he argued against his own ideas:

I invented nothing new. I simply assembled into a car the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work. . . .  Had I worked fifty or ten or even five years before, I would have failed. So it is with every new thing. Progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready, and then it is inevitable. To teach that a comparatively few men are responsible for the greatest forward steps of mankind is the worst sort of nonsense.

What gives one person credit for the same ideas others also came up with is not the novelty of the ideas, but rather the ability of the “inventors” to execute–to create a lasting difference based on the unique set of connections they are able to build around that idea.  Ford invented nothing new, but nobody connected, so effectively, those existing ideas into a system of mass production that was as effective and (as important) influential in changing others.

So little of the conversation on innovation looks at the ability of “inventors” to execute.  To take actions that build on their ideas–whether that’s starting a company, attracting investors, hiring smart people, selling to customers.  There is a strange aversion, in writing on creativity and innovation, to these more blue-collar aspects of building great ideas. That’s a shame because there’s a lot of work being done backstage that nobody’s getting credit for.

There is a joke about George W. Bush–“he was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple”–that applies to the study of genius as well.  Genius is often given credit for coming up with more ideas than others.  Missing from this description is the changes that take place around the genius after the first idea or two.  After that, they have often built themselves a very effective network for moving ideas from the margins and into the mainstream.  After a while, people began sending Yogi Berra his quotes.

Bob Sutton and I wrote innovation at IDEO Product Development as a process of brokering–of taking ideas from where they’re known and moving them to where they’re not.  IDEO’s diverse clients and broad-minded designers made the company extremely effective at seeing how ideas in one industry can be used in another.  While IDEO’s culture and creative designers are able to generate many It insights, it’s IDEO’s network–their access to new clients–that enables them to have the effect they do.

Not to put too tautological a spin on it, but a genius is someone who gets credit for having the ideas (much like Gladwell’s Tipping Point is credited with many of the ideas that 50 years of social network research developed).  There there is validity and value to this definition.  A famous mathematician was once chided for having gotten credit for a discovery others had made.  His response:

“Yes, but when I discovered it, it stayed discovered.”

Given how many people can have ideas, we should be less interested in what it takes to have an idea and more curious about how make a idea “stay discovered.”

4 thoughts on “Ideas are cheap

  1. The notion of grabbing many diverse people to find new ideas is particularly interesting. This reminds me of many of the stories that are told in Don Tapscott and Anthony D. William’s book Wikinomics. Of particular mention is the story of how Goldcorp released their geological maps to the world in a process to gather the ideas for new areas to mine for gold. Many people from disparate backgrounds responded to the adventure to find gold which resulted in new goldmine discoveries. This all goes back to the old adage that many brains are better than one.
    What then makes ideas stay discovered? I propose that an idea stays discovered when someone recognizes the value of the idea. Because of the person’s background, thinking and experience they are able to see relevance in the idea. Much like a person that is putting together a jigsaw puzzle, they are able to visualize how the pieces fit together. Further the person builds on the idea and nurtures it until the idea can germinate into something of greater value. There is a lot of work that must be applied to the initial idea before it grows into an idea that will be valued by the masses.

  2. There is a certain element of “wisdom of the crowds” here, but I would argue there is a great deal of work in between an individual’s ideas and the acceptance of the masses. The initial days, months, and years of an overnight sensation are usually spent building up acceptance one person at a time. And with each of these new partners, allies, customers, investors, suppliers, and advocates, there must be some value that goes to them for accepting and advancing your idea.

  3. One of the hardest lessons for entrepreneurs to learn is that no matter how great your idea is … there are probably dozens if not hundreds who have had it before you … and did nothing with it. Ideas are GREAT, but they are cheap. If all you have are great ideas … or if you sit around endlessly refining your idea instead of acting on it (however imperfect at the time) … you’ll end up sucking wind and losing big to the guy or gal who gets it to market quicker. You learn more with a week of real, live market feedback (note: NOT silly focus groups, but legit market feedback) than a year of “thinking it over really, really, really hard.” Oh … I don’t want to go too fad-like on ya … but the previous sentence is a BIG, DRIVING LESSON you can and should take from “Web 2.0.” P.S. Sorry for the slow posting lately. I’m neck deep in spec’ing and having a custom sales and CRM system built using Filemaker Pro. For years, my business has run on a hacked-to-death version of Goldmine. Now that I’m … for the most part … going to a Mac only shop, it’s given me the excuse reason I wanted needed to have a shiny new system built just for me.
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