Is it Raining Ideas?

by Christos Tsolkas




When it comes to ideas, I’m always in love.


I get a lot of ideas, sometimes very good ones, and I feel a strong urge to share them with others and help them come to life. How do I know some of those are good? Because very often the ones I don’t pursue show up in the marketplace where – guess what – they work.


Have you ever experienced the frustration of seeing an idea you didn’t pursue create a big win for someone else? For a leader trying to move an organization forward, that’s a particularly difficult outcome to accept. I think I’ve finally come up with an answer.


The Perfect Idea Storm

I have no illusions that I am some kind of genius. I’ve never met an Elon Musk or a Steve Jobs but I know that’s not me. Not even close. In fact, I don’t even believe that the ideas I get are generated by me. Instead, I feel as though ideas are out there, in the atmosphere somewhere, waiting for the right opportunity or the right person. Perhaps they are stored in the original “cloud”; not the one we use for data today.


Does that sound crazy? I read an article recently that reinforced my personal theory. Clive Thompson wrote in Genius is More Common than You Think that the next time you experience a blinding flash of genius, realize that, “A few hundred people around the world are probably experiencing the exact same insight at the exact same time.”


By way of evidence, he points to the research of two scientists in the 1920s who investigated many scientific breakthroughs in history. They focused on events considered moments of genius such as the invention of the light bulb or telephone or telegraph or the discovery of oxygen and realized that multiple people had come up with the same idea, invention, theory, etc at pretty much the same time.


Their conclusion? Ideas are out there. They percolate when the larger culture is ready for them. And they come to life when someone with the right skills, openness, and creativity grabs on.


Connecting Dots and Flashing Insights

I think my own particular skill or aptitude is being able to connect things together that others don’t necessarily see as part of a pattern in the first place. I take a problem over here, a theory I read in a book over there, a solution being driven by a company in an entirely different area, and I suddenly see a way it all can come together. Voila.


I think the excitement of an idea comes from that flash of insight. It’s so energizing. You can see something wonderful, even if it’s not easy to explain or communicate to someone else.


So what do I do with my ideas? Sometimes I can’t help myself. I need to pursue that idea obsessively. But like most people, I have too much on my plate, and my resources are limited, so I usually bring my idea to others in the hope that they will grab on.


At most points in my career so far, I’ve been the leader of fairly large teams, so I have a ready audience available – poor guys – when I want to talk about my next big idea. The problem, however, is that it’s not always easy to find someone who can lead the execution of that idea or motivate others to follow up.


I think that’s one of the things that separate a Steve Jobs or an Elon Musk from the rest of us. They build talented organizations to pursue their ideas relentlessly. Even so, I also think there are times when even people like Jobs or Musk can’t get others to sign on.


A few years ago, Musk revealed an idea for high speed transportation – a hyperloop. But because he has so many other ideas to work on like batteries, electric cars, space ships, and maybe even a space elevator he threw the  idea out for others to try. Basically, he said, “Here’s my idea. You make it happen.”


So far, no one has taken him up on it.


The Opportunity Cost

I’d say that roughly 9 out of every 10 times I throw an idea out to my team, it ends up showing up in the marketplace within six to 18 months to make some other company money. They probably think I’m a little crazy when I point this out to them afterwards but I can’t help myself because I’m frustrated we didn’t do it first.


I think most leaders fail today to move their ideas forward effectively because they behave in a traditional hierarchical way. They become a bit aggressive and slightly arrogant and they force the team to follow up. Most times, however, the execution is poor as a result, and the leader would have been better off doing it himself.


The other way is to try persuasion. I like to talk to my team in a mature way and say, “Here’s my idea. I think it’s worth exploring. If you don’t want to do it, that’s perfectly fine. But be certain someone else in some other company will. Before you let it slide, please just consider the cost of not doing it. If someone else brings this idea to the market instead of you, how will you feel? What opportunities will you lose as a result?”


This only works, however, when my team is closely integrated and trust-rich. I call this type of team, a “Seamless Team“. They’re a group of highly skilled individuals with common dreams and fears but different talents and skills. They are intelligent people who trust each other, forgive mistakes or failures, and build on each other’s competencies.


More often than not, when I approach a Seamless Team with an idea I get a very high hit rate. Seamless Teams appreciate the urgency of an idea. They understand the briefing quickly. They calculate lost opportunity instantly. And they build on the idea creatively and practically. In fact, I don’t even have to do much persuasion at all. The members of a Seamless Team somehow get it, as Margaret Heffernan puts it in her TED Talk on the missing ingredient of teams. It’s marvelous.


Not every idea is brilliant. Not every brilliant idea is worth pursuing given everything else that may be going on. But I know that when I have a Seamless Team in place, I’ll get honest, instant feedback on a bad idea, or committed and responsive action when the idea is a winner everyone wants to capitalize on.


Picture Deviant Art Raining Ideas” by paco-chan


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