Innovation in a Society of No

There was an article in the Vancouver Sun a couple weeks back that is one of the best newspaper articles I’ve come across in a long, long time . It was about an old cabin in the woods north of Vancouver in an area called Hollyburn. The basic idea is that 50-odd years ago North Vancouver was essentially the Wild West. For something silly like $15 you were able to purchase a permit for a small chunk of land in order to build a cabin. So, a group of teenage boys did exactly that. They purchased a permit and built a cabin that became their oasis. A place where beer flowed, parents didn’t nag, and laughs were cheap. It is something that will never be experienced by kids today. In the world of helicopter parenting, and the fact that a parcel of land in the woods would likely sell for something near $1 million the odds are essentially zero for such a an amazing life experience like the one that group of teenaged boys had so long ago.

“Young people today don’t have the opportunity to do this anymore. Either the experience isn’t available to them or their parents and authority figures say ‘No, you can’t do that.’ We’ve very much become a society of ‘no’”  – Tony Flower

While I read the article, of course I couldn’t help project my own parenting style onto my criticism. Wondering if there is ever a chance I would embrace, or even allow such a freedom to be had by a group of young teens. But I also couldn’t help recognize that this same “Society of No” doesn’t just apply to children. It seems to be all around us. The design world is full of it. Industry claims it is eager to find the next innovation, but unless that innovation looks familiar or it can be proven with obvious logic sitting there at the drawing board, many ideas get shot down before they even get off the ground.

My experience is that engineers are the most notorious for having a hair trigger for the word “no”. There’s always a reason to say “no”. Whether it is a standard they claim prevents it, or even better, that it just “isn’t how we do things”. There seems to be something engrained in a technically proficient mind to say “no” to a new idea first, and ask questions later.

My broad brush accusations against engineers aside, innovation comes from being open to a new idea. Straight line, logical thinking is not what drives a new product or paradigm into existence. Quarterly numbers and unreasonable deadlines don’t drive it either. The further I get into product development, the more I realize that most companies that want innovation have zero interest in investing in it. Because it takes time. A lot of time.

Innovation can be sped along, relative to traditional development cycles, simply by eliminating “no” from the development cycle. Especially the early design phase. If you can build a company that embraces “dumb ideas” you’re far more likely to find the innovation you seek. A “brain dead idea” should never go to production. However, in a development cycle where Innovation is truly the goal, there needs to be a phase at the beginning that allows for dumb ideas to flow like beer in a 1950’s cabin built by teenagers. Those dumb ideas need to be explored and even built. Because the reality of it is, hidden inside every dumb idea is a seed for something better. There’s an idea that sparks something different, and new.

Imagine if Mr. Flowers and his friends were told “no” back in the day like they would have today. Imagine what your company can accomplish simply by embracing a mentality of exploration. I encourage every company seeking innovation to say yes to the idea of building a proverbial cabin in the woods. Allow for some dumb ideas and encourage them to become the seed for something better.

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