Your ideas have no value…

Half way into the 90s I spent slightly over two years completing my final degree project in Mechanical Engineering. As a result of this work I wrote some thermodynamic cycle simulation software that some time later spawned a thermodynamics book, now long forgotten (at least by me). During that time, I had to search through a lot of books. This was a long and tedious task that involved going through many physical books in the library. It was then when I had a fantastic — at least to me — idea:

Why not use manual scanners and the incipient OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software to digitize all the bibliographical indexes of the books of the university library?

This would make life much easier for those of us who had to search for needles in the haystack, since a simple search could at least tell us which books dealt with certain concepts we needed.

I thought it over to consider how it could be done. I knew it was a huge task, but it honestly seemed feasible at a reasonable cost and in a reasonable period of time. Also, it was only the alphabetical index and not the entire book, which would indeed have been almost impossible to do manually (as I had devised), and there wouldn't be any copyright issues with editors.

Once having thought it through, I went to speak to the university librarian — an affable and relaxed guy who wore glasses, the typical appearance of someone who spends hours among books. I wanted to explain my idea to him, sure that he would be thrilled because it was very innovative for its time (consider that it was 1996 or 1997) and useful, and it would even make his job easier.

Big mistake.

As he was a civil person, instead of telling me up front that I was an idiot for even thinking of doing something like that, he smirked and told me a tale about the village dunce he knew while growing up and one of his daft schemes (honest!). It simply seemed impossible for him. It was outside his preconceptions.

Somewhat demotivated and (let’s face it) humiliated, I decided that I had enough on my plate and that I’d better let it go.

A decade later, Google would not only digitize alphabetical indexes but the WHOLE contents of the books of the world :-S

Why are innovative ideas (almost) always rejected?

The above was just a trifle, an anecdote I recently remembered. But it made me wonder why the ideas that break away from convention are almost always systematically rejected.

People need to think based on general schemas and patterns that help us understand how the world works. We get accustomed to certain behaviors, to the way things are, and it’s very difficult for us to move out of that spot. It’s a logical behavior from an evolutionary point of view.

Groundbreaking ideas — which entail radical changes — make us uncomfortable, uneasy and prone to reject them without even considering them properly. It happens to me too, just like to anybody else.

And this occurs even in this disruptive society that we happen to live in, where established ideas are broken almost daily and innovation is brandished like a flag, almost a religion. But even those who defend innovation most fiercely find themselves rejecting ideas for being “too different”.

In this vein, it’s interesting to read the 2011 study “The Bias against Creativity: Why People Desire but Reject Creative Ideas” by a group of researchers at Cornell University. Its conclusion is the same one: there is a latent bias against disruptive innovation, even though we claim the opposite to the outside. It’s in our nature.

We all reject ideas and ideas are rejected from all of us. It’s something we have to accept and find ways to minimize.

Marketing ideas

Not all ideas are good and it’s normal that many of them are rejected. But sometimes excellent ideas are discarded or not supported because they aren't successfully conveyed.

And that’s because our ideas seem very clear in our heads, and we think that everyone will see them as limpidly as us. Actually, that’s almost impossible and what we need to do is take those ideas out of the remote corner of our brain where we have them and express them in clear, simple terms and with patterns that are easy to take in.

My opinion is that marketing also helps in this area. The marketing of a product depends on the way it’s presented: how, where, when, through which channels…

We can apply these concepts when preparing the presentation of our idea. If we know beforehand that people are going to have a natural tendency for rejection, before presenting a new idea that breaks down some established preconceptions we should prepare ourselves properly.

This involves, firstly, preparing the message. We must search for everything that connects the idea with what our audience knows and values, highlighting more the aspects that it has in common with this than the aspects that differentiate it, establishing analogies and clearly demonstrating its advantages. And it will be even better if we can prepare a concept test, a practical demonstration of the idea, even a small one. We should foresee the largest number of objections that are going to be raised and prepare counterexamples or arguments. We must also choose the appropriate place and timing, as well as the audience to whom we make our announcement.

In my example, maybe I shouldn't have spoken to the librarian, who saw his world turned upside down, but to doctorate students or professors. I should have thought more about how to explain it, and it probably wouldn't have been too complicated for me to conduct a first concept test and make a prototype myself.

And finally, a history story

A case study I love is the comparison that has been made between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. The former was a true genius (perhaps at the level of Leonardo da Vinci, though much less well-known) but he wasn’t good with words and couldn't convey ideas as successfully. Edison was indubitably a very smart guy, with over 1000 patents of his inventions, and among many devices he is credited with having invented the phonograph and the bulb (actually, Edison didn't invent the bulb, as almost everyone thinks — he perfected it from the ideas of many others before him).

I strongly recommend that you read the long strip/homage to Tesla they published in The Oatmeal in 2012: Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek that ever lived. I warn you that Edison doesn’t come off very well.

However, it’s also worth reading this article which appeared in the New York Times on December 28th, 1879, a few days after the first public demonstration of Edison’s new bulb, and whose headline I reproduce below.

Source: NY Times

It’s impressive how Edison prepared that first public demonstration. It’s a true product marketing lesson from the nineteenth century: location, message, demonstration, association with known concepts, objection countering, audience selection, etc. Striking. Reading it, it’s easy to understand why Edison went down in history while Tesla, being much more of a genius, is less remembered.

I think we can all draw some lessons from this example, and the first one is that the full title of this article should have been “Your ideas have no value… alone”.