Ideas. Worth. Doing. (Part 3)

August 11, 2014

Ideas. Worth. Spreading. Doing.

In recent posts we have explored the role of ideation in the innovation process, using the TED slogan “ideas worth spreading” to drill into how ideation works, and why communities and their interests are built from certain ideas but not others.

We began with the key premise that ideas are derived by collisions between desire and impediment; we want something, we can’t have it, and so we ideate a way to get it. We then moved on to “worth,” focusing on the tension between cost and value. What will it cost us to capture an idea, and how does doing so help to define the nature of ourselves? Worth begins with the personal, but ultimately depends on the collective to become impactful.

Last up – Spreading (Doing).

Putting ideas into action is certainly the hardest part of it all. But as we reconsider the opening words of TED’s mission statement: “We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and, ultimately, the world …” it is clear that this is precisely TED’s intention – to move beyond ideas to actions that help deliver value.

Image by JsCreationzs via

Image by JsCreationzs via

As a father of three sons, one of my favorite “ideas worth spreading” has been the Band-Aid, a product that was invented in 1920 by Johnson & Johnson employee Earle Dickson for his wife Josephine, who frequently hurt herself while cooking. By pre-affixing sterile gauze to a roll of tape, Earle’s prototype allowed Josephine to dress her wounds without assistance. Although the first product incarnation was “sticky,” in an 18 inch by 2.5 inch format that users had cut to size, only $3,000 of the product was sold in its first year on the market. But those early customers saw how it worked, they understood the simplicity, and with enduring iteration Band-Aid spread to be one of the most successful and recognized global brands for nearly 100 years; gracing the knees, elbows, and fingers of billions.

As we have explored this topic, thus far, we have implied that most of what is happening involves evolution to the physical. It begins with the first moments of idea capture (perhaps that first napkin drawing), which is followed by additional iteration and then socialization, and if successful, is realized in some form of product or service.

But we should acknowledge that not all potent ideas provide value in this “physical” way. Many innovations remain solely mental expressions, and yet are certainly “valuable” to those who own them. In fact, often it is these mentally held ideas and notions that form the glue of our social and cultural systems – namely, ideas surrounding what we believe, what we do, and what we try to avoid. In deep and potent ways, these “internal” ideas define who we are, and how we integrate into groups. The ideas we accept or reject provide the precision for shaping our identities and our groupings.

Marketing experts have relied on these segmentations for many years. Now, with the power of much deeper data sets and advanced analytical tools applied to online behaviors, our precise understanding at the level of individual or societies is being taken to new levels, with predictive algorithms that try to guess our next favorite book or other products of interest, or maybe even a potential spouse! (Social Physics, a new book by Sandy Pentland, Director of MIT’s Human Dynamic and Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program, is a tremendous guide for those interested in these types of quantitative details.)

Nonetheless, many, many more books are written than are deemed successful, and we still struggle to distinguish which products will be hits and from those that will be failures. So, it seems that much of how ideas are “spread” remains as much an art as it is a science for now, but things are rapidly changing.

What about TED, though? How does that organization determine which ideas will be deemed attractive and, thus, spreadable? To begin, they start with a tremendous focus on curation, with Chris Anderson placing this at the top of his tasks from the beginning. Since the first TED conference 30 years ago, speakers have spanned a diverse array of individuals – from political figures, musicians, and TV personalities who are completely at ease before a crowd to much lesser known academics, scientists, and writers to folks that simply have a fascinating story to tell and may have never stood before a crowd. A major part of the outcome is based in the art of storytelling itself. The best stories are built from the personal and often include a struggle, a setback, and then a surprising path to a resolution. We connect best with these because they resonate with how we tell stories to ourselves. But the primary challenge for Anderson et al. is to pick those stories with broadest social appeal and to help shape the optimal means of telling them.

A.I. XPRIZE presented by TED

A.I. XPRIZE presented by TED

Despite the “art” involved, TED talks have also been the subject of substantial analytics. How long is the ideal talk, which topics work, which ones don’t, what colors are best, what cadence is most effective, what apparel is most appealing, etc. In fact, earlier this year Chris Anderson and Peter Diamandis, Chairman and CEO of XPRIZE, announced the A.I. XPRIZE presented by TED, a competition to reward the first team who can “walk or roll out on stage a machine that, in response to a challenge topic, can generate and present a TED Talk so compelling that it commands a standing ovation” from the audience.

It will be fascinating to track how this unfolds.  What will we learn from this XPRIZE inspired endeavor that seeks to leverage AI technology, with deep understandings of human emotion and reaction, to identify, cultivate and iterate on ideas that are worth spreading?

The “spreading or doing component” of the idea equation – the thirst and, frankly, the resolve to move from ideation to actualized innovation despite numerous associated risks and unknowns – involves some delicate (or perhaps indelicate) balance of the following: pure, uninhibited human motivation that is initially self-driven; a small (or sometimes hefty) amount of insanity; unwavering confidence – including, perhaps most importantly, the confidence to fail; teamwork – if not initially, then ultimately; and, lastly, a strong dose of idealism grounded in a firm belief that a given idea, when brought to fruition, will in some way – big or small – yield a solution that matters to firstly to us and then to many. Here’s to “doing something.”

Next we’ll explore the role of “sharing” in the innovation process. When we should, why we don’t, and how sharing is a trend that is rapidly spreading in our increasingly globalized world.