Cafe Witness

Friday, March 09, 2007

The Value of NOT Getting It

Over at BuzzMachine, Jeff Jarvis has a great post about the litmus test a new spearheading team at The Economist is using to determine if their "outside-the-box" ideas for the next wave of change in their company is actually working:

"They say they will know they have succeeded when they present their big idea and get someone saying, 'I don’t get this at all.'"

The Timestream of "Getting It"

When I attended Video on the Net in Boston back in September, I was one of a few podcasters -- or "disruptors," as Jeff Pulver referred to us -- swimming in a sea of suits. I was one of the people creating the exact same media that people driving Mercedes were trying to wrap their heads around: What IS this? Why does it MATTER? What does it MEAN to me?

And, of course, "How do you MONETIZE?"

Surprisingly (to me), that was 6 months ago. I'll be speaking at Video on the Net in San Jose in two weeks, and I can tell you right now that the number of suits in that room who "get it" is ten times greater than it was in September. The world has changed, and the concept of user-generated content is no longer the head-scratcher it was to the CNNs and NBCs of the world. (They still may not understand exactly how to utilize it, but they definitely know it's there.)

Suddenly, the bar for the future has been raised -- and it's not enough to simply be one step ahead.

Worst-Case Scenario

Let's say the folks at The Economist spend six months of time and money developing new ideas to take their company where no other company has gone before, media-wise.

They walk into the boardroom, surrounded by suits who've been paid just as much money to ensure that the status quo has been maintained for those six months. They whip out their laptops, Power Point presentations, Second Life walkthroughs, and whatever other materials they need to get their point across to their colleagues.

And, at the end of the presentation, everyone else in the room looks around at one another and they all say, contendedly, "Yes, this makes absolute sense. We get it!"

The presenters' shoulders will drop and their smiles will crack, and rightfully so.

They will have failed.

Twice Removed

Being an innovator means seeing into the future, understanding what's possible, and then leaving a trail of bread crumbs behind you so the mass of humanity can catch up. It does not mean taking that same mass of humanity by the hand and shepherding them to the next plateau; it means calling down from the top of the mountain while sending carrier pigeons to the sherpas.

If your next great idea is easily graspable by people who only now have a vague understanding of new media -- or of whatever your current emerging industry "trend" is -- your idea is not the next great idea: it's the next logical idea. No one gets a promotion for having the next logical idea. No one writes front page articles about the next logical idea. And venture capitalists surely don't scour the earth looking for the next great logical idea.

You need to disrupt the status quo. And the only way to do that is by being at least two steps ahead.

Let's presume the folks at The Economist walk into their meeting in six months and do the same dog-and-pony show as mentioned before. This time, baffled looks of bewilderment cross the faces of the suits in the audience. One man coughs violently, a psychosomatic reaction to vaguely perceived threats.

Finally, the chairman stands up and, red-faced at having wasted six months of resources on these clinically insane people, says, "I don't get this at all."

Then the presenters can hold their heads high and rest assured that the money and time was well spent.

Separation Anxiety

Innovation is not a smooth process. It's not painless, stress-free and placid. It usually involves massive amounts of blood, sweat, tears and caffeine.

Mostly, it requires two teams: the advance team that scouts ahead and starts to build the new infrastructure, and the security team that's sent back to escort the old infrastructure to its new home.

As an innovator, you want to be on the team that sees what no one else sees. You want to understand not what's next, but what happens after that.

And then you need to send word back to the village that it's safe to proceed.

The biggest danger an innovator faces is in not being innovative enough. If the ideas you report back to the village are met without conflict and argument, then clearly you haven't seen far enough beyond the horizon.

The Middle Manager Test

Whenever you feel you've developed a sufficiently innovative idea, ask yourself the following question: if I presented this idea to the average middle manager in a company in my field -- a person whose job it is to maintain the status quo and ensure that the existing (and therefore, by definition, obsolete) machine is running smoothly -- would he or she grasp it immediately and sign off on it as a good idea?

If the answer is yes, you're not an innovator. You're on the security team, and you've just discovered the proper wording to motivate the village to follow you into the clearing.

Now you need to figure out what's beyond the clearing. Think bigger.

As an innovator, you need to be able to see farther into the future than everyone else. You need to identify a potential disruption in your market, see the possibilities that can grow out from that tidal wave, and then discern which ripples in the pool can start the wave toward rising.

Anyone can see the ripples. You need to see the wave.

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