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Your Idea Doesn’t Matter

I’ve said recently that your opinion doesn’t matter and now I’m going to add insult to injury. Not only does your opinion not matter but your ideas don’t matter either. If you think that you’re just one great idea away from becoming a tech-legend, think again. There are two reason for my statements. The first is simultaneous discovery and the second is non-disclosure agreements.

As I’ve written before about simultaneous discovery, it happens all the time. Perhaps the earliest example is farming. Sometime around the Neolithic Age (New Stone Age) about 10,000 years ago, humans separately invented farming at least three times and possibly as many as seven times. Different civilizations from Eastern Mediterranean to China to Mexico all came up with the idea of farming, presumably without sharing this knowledge in any way. More recent examples include, in 1611 the discovery of sun spots at least four different times, in 1869 both Cros and du Hauron invented color photography, and Bell, Gray, and la Cour just to name a few invented the phone at nearly the exact same time. The list of simultaneous discoveries or inventions is so extensive that William F. Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas documented over 148 of them in 1922. The likely cause of this is that inventions are built on top of other inventions which makes them “ripe” for discovery by anyone with that combination of information.

Regarding non-disclosure agreements and how they prove that your idea doesn’t matter. If you’ve ever pitched your idea to a VC you know that they don’t sign NDAs before they hear your idea. There are several reasons for this, many documented well in this post. I would sum it up into three major reasons. The first is that they are likely to hear the same (or similar) idea from several teams. Second, VC’s know that the idea doesn’t matter nearly as much as the execution of the idea. And, the third reason is that no idea stands the test of interaction with the customer, meaning if your company succeeds it is likely going to be with some offshoot idea and not the original one.

So, if your idea doesn’t matter and your opinion doesn’t matter…what does? Execution matters. That you can build a great team, provide them leadership, establish a culture of learning and deliver products to customers all matter. Don’t wait for the perfect idea. Pick an interesting problem that needs to be solved and get the solution into the hands of your customers quickly in order to learn.


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The Agile Executive

In this third installment of our “Agile Organization” series we discuss the qualities and attributes necessary for someone to lead a group of cross functional Agile teams in the development of a web-centric product.  For the purposes of this discussion, the Agile Executive is the person responsible for leading a group of agile teams in the development of a product.

In a world with less focus on functional organizations such as the one we’ve described in our Agile Organization articles, it is imperative that the leadership have a good understanding of all domains from the overall business through product management and finally each of the technical domains.  Clearly such an individual can’t be an expert in every one of these areas, but they should be deep in at least one and broad through all of them.  Ideally this would have been the case in the functional world as well, but alas functional organizations exist to support deep rather than broad domain knowledge.  In the Agile world we need deep in at least area and broad in all areas.

Such a deep yet broad individual could come from any of the functional domains.  The former head of product management may be one such candidate assuming that he or she had good engineering and operations understanding.  The head of engineering and operations may be heads of other agile teams, assuming that they have a high business acumen and good product understanding.  In fact, it should not matter whence the individual comes, but rather whether he or she has the business acumen, product savvy and technical chops to lead teams.

In our view of the world, such an individual will likely have a strong education consisting of an undergraduate STEM (science, technology, engineering or math) degree.  This helps give them the fundamentals necessary to effectively interact with engineers and add value to the engineering process.  They will also have likely attended graduate school in a business focused program such as an MBA with a curriculum that covers finance, accounting, product and strategy.  This background helps them understand the language of business.  The person will hopefully have served for at least a short time in one of the engineering disciplines as an individual contributor to help bridge the communication chasm that can sometimes exist between those who “do” and those who “dream”.  As they progress in their career, they will have taken on roles within product or worked closely with product in not only identification of near term product elements, but the strategic evaluation of product needs longer term as well.

From the perspective of philosophy, the ideal candidates are those who understand that innovation is more closely correlated with collaboration through wide networks than it is to the intelligence of one individual or a small group of people.  This understanding helps drive beneficial cognitive conflict and increased contribution to the process of innovation rather than the closed minded approach of affective conflict associated with small groups of contributors.

In summary, it’s not about whence the person comes but rather “who the person is”.  Leading cross disciplinary teams requires cross disciplinary knowledge.  As we can’t possibly experience enough personally to be effective in all areas, we must broaden ourselves through education and exposure and deepen ourselves through specific past experiences.  Most importantly, for a leader to succeed in such an environment he or she must understand that “it’s not about them” – that success is most highly correlated with teams that contribute and not with just being “wickedly smart”.


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Simultaneous Discovery

The Paleolithic Era (Old Stone Age) lasted roughly from 2.5M to 10,000 years ago. During this time humans moved around in small bands as hunter/gatherers. Sometime around the Neolithic Age (New Stone Age) humans invented or discovered farming. While turning unedible crops like wheat into food is impressive, what’s even more impressive is that humans separately invented farming at least three times and possibly as many as seven times. Different civilizations from Eastern Mediterranean to China to Mexico all came up with the idea of farming, presumably without sharing this knowledge in any way.

While the discovery of farming might seem an evolutionary necessity for long term survival the coincidental simultaneous invention by disparate individuals is apparently not uncommon at all.  In 1611, sun spots were discovered at least four different times, in 1869 both Cros and du Hauron invented color photography, and one that you might be more familiar with the invention of the phone by Bell, Gray, and la Cour to name a few of the individuals involved.  Napier and Briggs are credited with logarithms but Burgi also invented them a few years earlier.  Another popular one is the theory of natural selection being developed independently but simultaneously by Wallace and Darwin. There are so many of these simultaneous discoveries or inventions that William F. Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas published a paper “Are Inventions Inevitable? A Note on Social Evolution” in 1922 that documented 148 of these simultaneous discoveries.

No one is really sure why this happens. Some believe in a sort of efficient-market hypothesis, which in financial markets means that information is ubiquitous and therefore you cannot consistently beat the market because everyone knows the same information almost simultaneously. Ogburn and Thomas postulated in their paper that because there are very few completely new discoveries, most inventions are inevitable.  Inventions are built on top of other inventions such as the steam boat being dependent on boats and steam engines being invented prior.

While a curiosity, you’re probably wondering how this applies to hyper growth startups. The key takeaway is that while you’re coming up with a great idea so is everyone else. The ability to iterate quickly on ideas is more critical than ever. Combine this absolute need for quick iterations with the requirement for measuring results of effort, lest it be completely wasted and you have A/B testing on features that are launched in weekly sprints. SaaS companies have no excuse for not releasing in very short sprints (if not continuously), watching user behavior to learn what works and what doesn’t, then iterating again.

Despite the plethora of articles and books to the contrary, there are very few million dollar ideas, just million dollar executions of ideas. If investors are looking for key attributes about a team that make them more likely to succeed or not, I’d suggest looking for a team that can deliver quickly and knows the importance of measuring success.


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Chief Innovation Officer – Organization #Fail

If I get another phone call from another recruiter about a “Chief Innovation Officer” search, I may just hang myself from my hotel light fixture with my belt.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m not angry at the recruiter (other than for wasting some of my time) – I’m mad at the CEO or person advising the CEO who come up with such a lame title.  Why am I so upset over the name? Pull up a chair and grab a cup of coffee.  You don’t want to miss this rant.

My first gripe is with the name of this “position”.  The name just sucks and flies in the face of everything we know about innovation.  In some companies, the Innovation Officer might just be a rebranded VP or SVP of product.  I’m almost okay with that – except for the fact that in this case it is a complete misrepresentation of what the person is doing.   If the person is something other than the head product person, well, that’s when this position really is nothing more than a shareholder wealth incineration device.

This moronic title seems to imply that there is a person “responsible” for innovation within a company.  Anyone who believes that one person can somehow be responsible for innovation is clueless about whence innovation comes.  You can no more “control” innovation than you can domesticate a rabid dog hyped up on meth.  You can certainly “kill” innovation, just as you can put down that rabid junkie dog – and giving someone a business card with Chief Innovation Officer on it is like putting a 240 grain slug in that dog.  Goodbye junkie dog and goodbye innovation.  The dog will probably die a more humane death however, as the Chief Innovation Officer will kill innovation under the crushing weight of power point presentations and spreadsheets.

Innovation simply can’t be controlled.  It can be “captured”, it might be “harvested” and it certainly can be “found”.   In some cases, it might even be able to be “directed” with the right questions and incentives.   But “controlled”?  Give me a break.  Capturing, harvesting and finding are all by the company culture – not a single individual.  And as we all know, that culture is most often affected by the CEO and to a lesser degree by each level below the CEO.  This is one of those things, then, that the CEO can’t delegate.  It’s not a position – it’s a shared responsibility.  How do you incent people to innovate?  How do you find little pockets of innovation that hide within the organization but never become apparent because your processes require it to be presented within a 40 page Power Point deck?

My partner, Tom Keeven, knows how.  Tom is a man of varied interests.  One interest is running a pizza parlor in Carmel.  His employees come to him with suggestions all the time.  “Let’s start a delivery service”, “Why don’t we make a low carb pizza dough?”, “Let’s advertise in local hotels”.  Tom doesn’t tell them to run off and build a presentation – he listens to them with great interest.  He rewards them for great insights.  He tells them to experiment and try things out.

Google allows engineers to work on interesting problems with great benefit to the innovation process.  Granted, few of these innovations have paid off and the resulting shareholder dilution is very large.  But the process of bottoms -up, “grass roots” innovation produces results in terms of number of innovations brought to market.  Sooner or later one of them will pay off – the question is “at what cost”.

In summary, innovation isn’t an organization, it’s not a title and it’s certainly not something controlled from the top.  There are things you can do to nurture it and maybe even slightly direct it – but there is little you can do to control it.   You can’t hire a person to control it and you are just wasting your time if you expect to try to create an organization to “innovate”.  If you want your team to innovate, work on creating a risk tolerant culture and work to incent your team for their innovation efforts.  Lower the cost of innovation by eliminating ridiculously complex and burdensome innovation hurdles like executive presentations.  Change the ridiculous titles of your innovation officers to something useful and stop wasting shareholder wealth.


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