ideas are for chumps

innovation isn’t about ideas, it’s about agile teams that can execute, learn and iterate.

Yesterday a colleague of mine tweeted this from a conference  he was attending. I got to tell you, the statement struck me when I saw it and it’s been sticking with me since. I think I need to write about it in order to let it go.

To start with, I think this assertion is fundamentally flawed at best if not totally inaccurate. Innovation could not exist without ideas. How so? Innovation is spurred by looking at things that exist and coming up with way to improve upon them or apply them to a new area. In other words, innovation occurs when ideas are successfully applied. Innovation is an idea in practice. Innovation is different from invention, generally defined as an idea that brings something into the world that did not exist before. Now I’m willing to be that more times than not when the innovation comes to fruition it may bear little resemblance to the original idea however, I’d also bet that without having that original idea the chances of that innovation actually happening dramatically drop.

To be fair, I did not hear the talk from which this tweet spawned so I’m not familiar with the context. So I’m willing to give the speaker the benefit of the doubt that this statement was part of some larger point he or she was making that did not transfer over to twitter. I’m hoping the point was somewhere along the line of an idea not acted upon brings not benefit but, again I do not know and do not wish to put words into the speaker’s mouth. I wish someone would share the full context with me. Anyone attending the Enterprise 2.0 conference care to help me out?

As to the second part of the statement, if there wasn’t an idea about a potential opportunity what point does it serve to work in team, or individually for that matter? What can you execute? What is there to iterate? What is there to learn?

I’m not sure if and when ideas went out of fashion. Did they?

  1. I leave the room when someone starts the waterfall v. agile debate. With idea = bad and re-iteration the mode of the day there’s little wonder that we’re only doing what’s been done before and “innovation” is simply posting a find to twitter before your colleagues.

    Thank you for stepping up to this one, Jeff.

    • Hi Dave,

      The notion that we don’t have the luxury to spend our time on ideas seems to be permeating all areas of society & culture. I find this particularly troublesome when in becomes the preferred course of action in areas where ideas are the currency we trade upon. I often wonder if it’s primarily a fear response–fear of being left behind.

  2. I don’t think incorporation of strong intellectual ideas and applying agile development techniques are irreconcilable though. I think that ideas take inspiration, and the only way to obtain that is through the types of actions you mention in the post — learning what others are doing and trying to apply cross-domain knowledge to create a new approach to a familiar problem. But especially in software, there’s often a gap between the initial idea and its actualization — people aren’t OK with waiting 12 months for an update anymore (that luxury is only reserved for companies like Apple at this point, in contrast to how Google is pushing out Android hardware updates at a blazing clip). I think that agile development is helpful for fine-tuning the manifestation of ideas… it’s a lot easier to work collaboratively on iterating a tangible product than an abstract idea.

    Thanks for the post… very interesting.

    • Hi Davis, Nor do I find intellectual ideas and agile development incompatible. That’s part of what struck me about the quote. I’m having a hard time believing that was truly what the speaker meant. I’m also admittedly a little dumbstruck that that is the soundbite axiom that many people took away from the talk.

      Your last statement really resonates with me.

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