Impatience and Design by Counter Example

“Don’t worry about other people stealing your ideas. If you’re ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.” – Howard Aiken, IBM Engineer

This is my favorite quote for the day. Innovation, with all the ideas and execution that it requires, fails to happen for so many reasons, but most common in my experience are these two:

1. Design by Counter Example

2. Impatience

Design by Counter Example

Suppose you come up with some fantastic idea, you are excited about it, so you begin to share it with your coworkers and friends. If your friends are smart, they’ll begin to analyis your idea for weaknesses and flaws. They’ll do this not because they don’t like you or don’t trust you, they’ll do this because it’s what they are trained to do. Find the problems and worse, find the 100% solution, the solution that works everywhere. You’ll know these people because they’ll often begin their comments to you with “No, but…” or “What about…”

The problem with the “No, but…” response is that it sets up conflict, and no forward progress in idea generation can be made until the conflict is resolved. Worse, conflict resolution wastes time and energy and discourages more idea sharing. The “What about…” response almost always follows with some scenario or example that counters your idea in some way. Your response will often be an attempt to resolve that counter example, which when solved will be rewarded with a new and different counter example. Corner case upon corner case, what was a clear, bold and brilliant idea, gets designed into a complex, multifaceted feature that is costly to explain, build and test. If you share your ideas with a team of smart people, this can happen in a disastrously quick manner.


Impatience is perhaps the subtlest of innovation killers. You will need patience as you develop the ideas because it will be hard to teach your idea to others, and then once the vision is clear, it will take yet longer to actually implement it. Remember it took Steve Jobs 18 months to convince the record labels to let him build the iTunes music store. If you back down at any point in this long journey, that is when innovation dies. This is why I believe, in so many ways, it’s all about the execution.

Ideas are important too, and when you are generating ideas, being creative, all too often a well meaning individuals will ask you to rate the ideas and place them in priority order for potential business impact. This is a good idea, but done too soon, it’s like asking a 3 year old what valuable contribution he or she will make to the world, and bereft of any intelligible response condemning the toddler to uselessness.

This impatience to see whether an idea is good or not kills innovation because the real innovation happens generally not in one brilliant flash of light, but at the interaction of ideas, and often ideas interacting with others in the periphery. I first heard Steve Jobs coin the phrase, “connect the dots backwards” and I think this applies here. You can’t tell what will be important until after the fact, after the interaction. What you need is a safe place for lots of ideas to interact with out getting shot down. It looks like this:

Creating an environment where ideas can patiently interact and people can interact with the ideas before making the “do or die” business decision is key. What’s even more important than the ideas, is that you don’t kill the idea generators and integrators, that is, the people! Consider this story related by Heike Bruch and Sumantra Ghoshal in the February 2002 issue of the Harvard Business Review:

“In a major U.S. oil company, for example, we witnessed a committed and enthusiastic manager gradually become apathetic. An IT specialist, he was assigned to an inter-disciplinary strategy-development task force that was charged with creating a new business model for an up-stream division. The team came up with several radical proposals, but they were met with lukewarm responses from senior managers. After several months, the team’s ideas were diluted to the point that not even the IT manger found them interesting. What had once been an exciting task became a farce, from his point of view. Believing that no one was interested in new ideas, he concluded that he was foolish to have been engaged as he was. “I distanced my self,” he says, “I knew that none of our innovating ideas would ever make it to implementation. So I continued working out concepts and ideas-but with no skin in the game.”

To be fair, even the best organizations occasionally create cynics out of enthusiasts. But some organizations seem to make a practice of it by constantly sabotaging any flickers of creativity or initiative.”

When creativity flickers, don’t let the cold winds of cost benefit analysis prevail. Provide the fuel of saying “Yes!” and patience to wait and see, even if you must suspend your disbelief. This will give people the space and time they need to make great things happen. Remember it took Michelangelo years to complete the Sistine chapel and Goethe spent almost 60 years writing his masterwork Faust. Good things take time.

So, if you want to be innovative here’s my advice:

  • Focus on execution, on making ideas reality. For every thousand great ideas, only one reaches someone with the courage to actually do something with it.
  • Stop saying “No, but…”, learn to say “Yes, and…”, find a way to talk about ideas that adds more and moves them forward. Give folks what they want. Suspend your disbelief.
  • Be patient, great things take time. The really great ideas are going to be a collision of ideas. Let them grow so they can interact.
  • 3 thoughts on “Impatience and Design by Counter Example

    1. Truly educational. We have a culture of killing innovation here at our company and I’m trying to think how to use some of your suggestions to help move innovation forward.

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