On why some ideas just work

If you work in a corporate environment you will know the story well – from the lowest of the low to the highest of the high – the battle to make yourself heard, and to bring about some sort of positive change. Corporates seem to embody this problematic space of calling out for good ideas and then rejecting every single one of them.

“Too radical”

“Not radical enough”

“Prove the benefits”

“Does it align to our strategy?”

Yada. Yada. The place where good ideas go to meet the masher. And oh how they get mashed. Paralysis by analysis, and a litany of half baked attempts all weighed down by agendas.

From experience – good ideas are not just one off inspirations, they are usually carefully considered based on years of experience. We’re not talking startups here, corporate environments have a terrific amount of domain specific experience floating around in them, and a lot of it is based around seeing what is wrong and having some idea of how to fix it, as much as it is the day to day. Corporates are great at jumping onto the latest trend and often rubbish at cleaning the mess from past efforts. There is a lot of junk sitting around. And that often needs cleaning. We’ll come back to this a bit later on.

So to the subject – and why some ideas just work. Making new things happen at work requires an overlap of a few key pieces:

A) The desire to change. Tech companies flock to this idea but more traditional companies are slowly getting on boards – things can be done better. Doesn’t matter what company you work for.

B) The right leadership. This is the catalyst. Put the right leader in and they will set the direction, and then allow people to make it happen. This bit cannot be overstated. Too often companies race to put the guy who looked after the money into the top slot, and that to me puts that company in a holding pattern – you wont see much appetite for taking risks. New ideas entail risk. And companies and departments who want to promote new ideas struggle to do that with staid management. To put it mildly.

C) The right preparation. Read above about cleaning up from the previous mess. A lot of great ideas get held back because the inability to implement them, either that or its a fudge from the old way to the new that ends up in a worst of both worlds, albeit with a shiny shop front, while the bits doing the work are held together with string. After a couple of iterations this becomes fairly untenable. Systems that rely on systems that rely on systems when half of them are out of date and poorly supported is a recipe for chaos. Brand new tech gets around this to some extent – one of the reasons why people like it so much. No baggage to deal with.

D) The champion. The often slightly awkward dude who has his head in the clouds, but has got the ideas right. Think Jony Ive. Often obsessive, needs to be tenacious, and needs to know B) pretty well. If he tries to go via committees he gets squashed every time. It’s often how the leaders and the champions deal with each other that makes the rest happen.

E) Budget. Good ideas don’t run on love. Sometimes massive budgets can lead to great things as you can pay for a whole bunch of D)’s to sit around and be creative, but this almost never happens. So lets just put this down as “adequate funding”. Too little money however and you might as well pack up and go home.

F) (Maybe) A lack of orthodoxy. Wrap that into D) – point is you need to be a square peg in a round hole for a lot of this stuff.

Now apply it and look at some case studies. The best and most obvious is Steve Jobs, Jony Ive and Apple. Especially then and now. Before Jobs came along Gilbert Amelio ran Apple, and Ive designed (by his own admission) terrible products. The day Jobs went down to the design lab for the first time Ive thought it was to fire him. Instead the iMac came out of it. The link between B) and D) cannot be underestimated. The interworking between those two changed the world, quite literally. Contrast that again to now and while Apple is caning it still, its easy to see its run by a bean counter and not a visionary technologist. (Sidenote: why do bean counters often end up in charge? The board. Who are themselves bean counters and in turn driven by investors who would rather keep making money than take risks, until the company starts to suck and they find another target to stick their fangs into).

Counterpoint to this is a revolutionary jet the Brits came up with in the 60’s called the TSR-2. This was almost decades ahead of anything else. It was however destroyed by bureaucracy. If the designers had been left to do their job it would have been a brilliant jet, but committee after committee got their hands on it and various parts of the design and oversight and it fell apart.

Another case in point is the Motorola RAZR – in its day it was the phone to have, and it was done as a skunkworks project on the sly with little oversight. Not saying you dont need oversight but man do you need to not be put in a straight jacket. And corporate environments are straight jackets.

Small companies seem unburdened by these problems – hence the appeal to many of startups – small groups of people able to just get on with the job, and all generally pulling in the same direction. Not always, but it’s easy to identify who’s not on the team and they get shuffled offstage.

So the idea to promote new ideas in big companies is create startup environments, skunkworks, within them having identified the right leaders and the right champions – they WILL produce results. You’ve got to trust them, create the right environment and leave them alone. And do plenty of C). Because we all need that.

And that is to me, how “some good ideas just work”.