Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Should Everyone Like Your Idea?
When you have a novel idea, does everyone need to like the idea for it to be worthwhile? When I ask this question in most groups, the typical answer is “no.” People like to say that they can go it alone when it comes to innovation. The consensus said that the film character “Rocky” was washed up, yet he persevered. We have memorialized that lone hero, based on Chuck Wepner, in a statue. Yet although you claim that you would go it alone, I bet you ask around a lot before you pursue a new idea. Why are you asking people what they think? Will you drop the idea if others don’t agree? What about your claim that you would happily go it alone?
Consider the story of Qualcomm. Years ago when Irwin Jacobs was just getting Qualcomm off the ground, the world was pretty skeptical about his attempt to turn CDMA technology into a working wireless standard. The technology was complicated, yet Jacobs’ team claimed to have made it work. Doubts about this claim mounted, even among experts; some esteemed faculty at Stanford University concluded that Jacobs’ work “violated the laws of physics.” If you ever feel surrounded by doubters, imagine how that must have felt for Irwin Jacobs and his fledgling firm.
Today, of course, we know that Qualcomm was successful in bringing CDMA technology into the market. This success is all the greater because of those early doubts. With so much controversy surrounding CDMA, most of the good early research was done by Irwin and his team. The benefit from being right, in a sea of doubters, is that you end up with most of the intellectual property. So it has been for Qualcomm. To this day they enjoy a handsome stream of payments: The reward for being right about a non-consensus innovation.
As the renown venture capitalist Andy Rachleff likes to say, the sweet spot for an innovator is to be right about a new opportunity before the rest of the world has reached a consensus. After all, if you are right and everyone else agrees, then you are unlikely to see much of an upside. This fact is at work when we say that we would happily go it alone. We know we have an edge when we’re right and others are in doubt.
But what if you are wrong?
If it turns out that you are wrong, now how do you answer my question? Knowing you are wrong, would you rather be consensus or non-consensus? No question: If I am wrong, I just don’t want to be alone. Because if we are all wrong, who can blame me? Whereas if I’m wrong and alone, now I am a fool. Everyone said I was wrong, but I stayed with my idea anyway, and sure enough I am wrong. What a fool! Like Don Quixote, I did it my way.
In many organizations, the fear of being a fool is stronger than the hope of being a genius. We are human, after all, and vulnerable. We know that pursuing a non-consensus idea puts us at risk of being a fool, and so it is that we ask around. The less consensus, the higher the payoff if we are right – but the more likely we are to dump the idea for fear of being a fool. So it is that people so often stay with the consensus. As long as we’re all on the same page, failure is tolerable; it is failure as the lone fool that we fear.
Is your organization a safe place to be non-consensus? Do those who work for you feel safe when they innovate, even if they are alone? You should frankly ask yourself these questions. Great leaders make it safe for others to innovate. And history then is written about those who were correct about new opportunities, even though there was no consensus.
The academic work behind these ideas can be traced to James March’s paper on exploration and exploitation.