The escape velocity of ideas

One thing I’m always telling the team here is that an idea by itself is pretty much valueless. Even the best, most amazing concept ever thought of, doesn’t do much if just sits around in somebody’s head. And if all you do is talk about doing it, the situation is much, much worse. Because then you’ve wasted time talking. An idea is valuable only when it is coupled with execution.

Having said that, there is a certain amount of fuel in an idea which can carry it part of the way itself. You know the type: concepts that are in themselves so exciting that they get individuals enthusiastic enough to consider taking time away from their day jobs to work on them. But even the best concepts don’t have all the energy they need to make it. You have to push them along.

I was put in mind of this recently when having a discussion with a colleague. He’d come up with a great concept around the customer experience in payments and brought it to us. I told him that I thought the concept was amazing, and asked “how much time can you give us to work on this?”. That was the damper. Of course the response was “I don’t have time to do that and my day job”. People generally don’t. In this case, the idea had enough fuel in it to get to the innovation team, but not enough to go beyond it on its own. We have had to make a decision about whether to charge this idea up to make it fly.

Charging up ideas is the biggest – and most time consuming – part of our job. Endless meetings. Lots of sales calls. So much influencing to get all the stars to align. It takes a lot of personal energy to get things rolling.

The thing is, whilst getting things rolling is difficult, you get quickly to a point where you don’t have to do too much at all. The thing has a life of its own. Last year, we worked on something in the online space for 6 months before we decided to – as we call it here – drown the puppy. We were never going to make the numbers work, the technical considerations introduced too much risk, and a multitude of other factors were in play. But by that stage, we’d charged up the concept with so much energy that it just wouldn’t drown. It continues to exist today, not going anywhere, but not quite dying either. It is a distraction for everyone.

The point where you’ve worked on a concept and it can no longer be shut down is like when an object achieves escape velocity. It is leaving your control, and there is nothing you can do once it does. It is independent entirely, because too many people have bought into it emotionally.

Getting to the escape velocity of an idea is something you absolutely need when you’ve got something good. But determining that in advance remains one of the hardest things to do.

So what lessons have we learned so far about the escape velocity of ideas?

Firstly, when you’re trying to drive innovations out the door, be certain that what you are doing isn’t going to fall over the second you force it out of orbit. It will keep coming back, over and over again. People will always hold it up as something that was a great concept but lacked execution.

Secondly, the amount of gravity we’re needing to overcome each time we want to get an idea to escape velocity is getting less. That’s great, of course, because it means we’re moving to that innovators nirvana of having a culture where innovation is important.

And finally, we’ve learned that there is a limited quantity of fuel available. You can use it in one rocket or ten, but the total available remains the same. The getting of more fuel is a key thing one needs to do because having lots of rockets is a way of mitigating risk to your financial returns.

One Response to“The escape velocity of ideas”

  1. February 27, 2008 at 10:31 am #

    Great post, completely agree.
    It’s all in the execution.

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