12 March 2007

Losing the Idea

Frank Shaw (who incidentally has one of the coolest named blogs ever) has a great post about how our impatience can get in the way of seeing the value of things. This is one of the reasons I'm in favor of people and processes that allow for ideas to interact. It's such a great post, I'm going to quote the whole thing here:

Here’s the question: What is more important, the idea, or the instantiation of the idea? Based on what I’ve been seeing/reading over the past year, it feels like we’re all losing the idea.

For example. Second Life – not that interesting. Not very many people, not great UI, business model challenges. Tons of hype – TONS of hype. And when SL vanishes, people will sniff and say, told you so. BUT. The idea – the idea behind SL, of a real platform for a virtual world, for robust commerce, ease of interaction, that’s interesting. It’s an idea worth pushing for, a dream worth having. Maybe the dreamers at Linden Labs will pull it off and make it real for everyone, but right now, we’ve missed the idea because of the focus on the example.

Or look at Wikipedia. Again, people are focused totally on the example, and not on the idea (Jimbo, I think, has the idea well in hand). Warts and all, Wikipedia has captured attention and created controversy. But by becoming the de facto example for all things wiki, it makes it easy for people (self included) to scoff and poke and mock when things don’t go well. If Wikipedia fades into the oblivion, people will say, well the idea was flawed. NO. The idea – harnessing the real wisdom of the crowds – remains as a beacon. When we focus too much on the company in front of us, we lose the idea.

There are tons of other examples – Digg, YouTube, Google. Each of these represents an “it” company of the moment, but behind each of them is an idea worth considering, regardless of the success or failure of the companies currently playing the lead role of the idea.

Why is it so damaging to lose the idea in the face of its current incarnation? Because some ideas take multiple instantiations to succeed, and if we summarily disregard the idea because of a flawed example, we run the risk of missing a huge opportunity.

As my dad always said, patience is a virtue. We’d all do well to be a bit more patient, and a bit more perceptive in our ability to applaud an idea and laugh at the current example.

This is why from an external perspective (investors, business managers), you need patience and internally (the people actually doing the work) you must have a steadfast determination to persist. Point me to anything that you might call innovation, and I'll point you to a version 2.0+ of an originally underdeveloped even laughable idea.

What's also interesting is that this is coming from a public relations guy! When you introduce something new, you almost always need to define it in terms of the past, in terms people already understand. (This is what makes things intuitive: they are like things you've experienced before, that you already understand.) Since folks, from CEOs to customers, are normally impatient, you need to use short words, quick explanations, simple concepts to promote a clear message, even if what's going on is much more interesting and subtle and even complex. This then, often has the very effect Frank is chafing against: It obscures the core idea while amplifying the current instantiation.

When considering a new idea, most normal people will have a "failure of imagination" that doesn't allow them to distill past the current implementation and see hidden therein a foundation for a future master work. If you find someone that can discern the core value of things and has the patience and courage to persist, hang on, because there's more than likely an explosive future just around the corner.

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