Expiration of a Good Idea

English / Writing

One concept that I find valuable is that good ideas are fragile, and needs protection from the people higher up the chain in an organization.

The gist of it is that for an idea to survive the process from being born to this world from the head of some lowly staff, on the very bottom rung of an organization, to being discussed and made priority on the very top of the food chain, is a very rare trait that only the very best organization have.

It’s one of the reasons why startups are able to scale and grow so quickly. Ideas are the seeds of growth, and it can’t really run by itself to the place where it can be executed and turned into a real result. It needs to be carried and executed, by the whole organization if possible.

In a startup, a newly hired guy can directly throw out their ideas into the minds of people that can actually make decisions, and execute. In a large organization, especially if it was rife with internal politics and competitions, ideas became dangerous, it is subversive, simply because it can create change, and change is the enemy of a known working bureaucracy. So it dies, probably in mid-management.

But of course, it’s easy to think about this in abstract terms. In the real world, the how is sometimes more important than the why. Saying ideas die because of mid-management is the equivalent of explaining why food go bad if you don’t refrigerate, but if your environment is without electricity, how can you find the solution?

Well, people make do. And so does an organization. The fact that due to the food going bad, 20 people are now lying sick in bed, will cause you, or, to get out from this hypothetical situation, the organization, to find a solution to the problem. That’s when something changes. Now it begins.

It happens in Blackberry, it happens in Nokia, it happens everywhere when a business gets disrupted. But the problem is that these organizations then found out that the good ideas have already expired. Even when they adopt the good ideas, sometimes through the shotgun approach of just doing it all and see what sticks, they failed. So they fold.

That’s why I like Apple’s, or, well, Steve Jobs approach to this problem. He came in knowing that good ideas are still there, but he needs the financial report to look good. So what he did is ingenious. He fired a bunch of people, but individually interview several people, and he kept the people that he thinks still have good ideas that can be saved. One of them is Jony Ive.

Noticed that this isn’t a systemic solution to a systemic problem. It’s a very individual approach, subjective and very un-friendly to business school graduates, simply because of how unpredictable it is. It’s not scalable, hard to repeat. The ironic thing is that it is exactly hard to repeat because of how big of a conviction the people higher up the food chain needs to have over their own decisions, their people, and their execution.

Apple didn’t do what Yahoo did under Marissa Mayer, bought companies for billions in the hopes that it can rescue Yahoo. It didn’t do Blackberry, halfheartedly trying to execute their own half-baked touchscreen OS and then gave up halfway. It certainly didn’t do Nokia in trying to sell itself to Microsoft and hiding it under the guise of executing a courageous strategy.

It believes in its own people, its characters, its story. It has a pretty strong idea of what Apple actually is and it executes on their firmly held beliefs until it’s successful. iPhone didn’t sell crazily when it was first released. iPod too, and even the Mac. iMac G3 brings some money to Apple but Mac market share is so tiny it’s laughable. But the company, again believes in its own ideas and executes. They iterate again and again firmly on the back of the good ideas of their employees and nothing else.

But that’s Steve Jobs. He has enough conviction in his own little world, and has gone through a process where he values idea more than the execution (see: Steve Jobs early darling, the Lisa & Macintosh vs Apple II), and managed to find balance.

And Apple did it. It managed to come back. As far as I know, there’s been no other company or CEO that managed to do this, at least in an industry as fast-paced as hardware and software.

So no, I don’t believe ideas have an expiration date. What caused these organizations who is suddenly open to suggestion to fail is not that the ideas had gone bad, it’s simply because they lack beliefs. In this way, ideas in organizations are like religion. It ceases to exist once you stop believing in it, not because it suddenly goes bad.

The Author

I write stuff, A recovering RSS feed addicts.