Good idea, bad idea or no idea?

For every one of our failures we had spreadsheets that looked awesome

Scott Cook. Founder and Chairman, Intuit

One of the biggest privileges of working in the technology sector for so long are the number of young entrepreneurs and innovators who approach me for thoughts on their big idea. As I’ve written before, whenever I can add value to someone else’s work I’m more than happy to. Giving back is important.

There’s something of an assumed wisdom in the social entrepreneurship and innovation sectors that “ideas are cheap” and that what it’s really all about is execution. While that’s true to an extent (I’ve only put a few of my ideas over the years into practice) good ideas certainly aren’t cheap. It’s just that sometimes – most of the time, in fact – they’re frustratingly hard to spot. Just to complicate things further, ideas often evolve over time, so could well start off in the lower half of the score card but then rise to dizzying heights later.

We’ll never know what would have happened to the tens of thousands of product ideas Steve jobs famously turned down, but the ones he did pursue were clearly good calls (with the exception of Apple TV, perhaps). For the Apple CEO, turning down a great idea was a price worth paying to maintain his relentless focus on focus.

But focusing on ideas and execution doesn’t give us the whole picture. One of the most effective tools in an innovator’s toolbox is passion and, although it won’t turn a mediocre idea into a great one, being passionate about it will certainly impact positively on their ability to deliver.

Passion is easy to spot, but what about the potential of the idea being communicated? In a recent Co.Design article, Scott Anthony provided a few helpful tips. Before getting too far down the road, he says, ask yourself these five questions:

1. Is it targeting an important problem that customers can’t address because existing solutions are expensive or inconvenient?

2. Does it solve the problem in a simpler, more convenient, or more affordable way?

3. Is there a plausible hypothesis about an economically attractive, scalable business model? Don’t believe financial forecasts, but ensure that there’s at least a sensible story

4. Does the team have the right stuff to course-correct according to in-market learning? Avoid dogmatic teams that will keep trying to prove they are right in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary

5. Can early profitability be a choice? The sooner there is a line of sight to profits, the better. You might make a strategic decision to be unprofitable by investing in marketing, sales capability, and so on, but at least you know that the core part of the model works

One of the key lessons FrontlineSMS taught me was the importance of getting your idea out there as quickly as possible and letting your users shape it. Thanks to the Internet, product launches – in the technology sector at least – are today only a mouse click away. Products can be accessed, used, hacked and abused in no time – or simply not used at all – giving you the quickest and clearest indication possible of its potential. Twitter was, in effect, shaped this way.

In terms of the tools, networks and opportunities available today, it’s never been easier to be an innovator or social entrepreneur. The difficult part has remained the same for generations of innovators gone by – that tricky combination of nailing a great idea, convincing others of its value, and then delivering on it.

Further reading
Three Ways To Predict What Consumers Want Before They Know It

The never-ending road to self-improvement

“Once in a while it really hits people that they don’t have to experience the world in the way they have been told to”
Alan Keightley

Sports players are always told they can “do better”. Even championship winning teams are told they can “play better”. A musician’s next album could always “sound better” and Little Johnny at school could always “try a little harder”. We seem to be in a constant state of attempted self-improvement. Are we ever happy with who we are or what we’ve achieved?

Survival is the main preoccupation for a vast majority of the world’s inhabitants. If it’s not yours then you’re one of the lucky ones, like me. Also, like me, you’re likely instead preoccupied with building a career, or “trying to make something of yourself” as people like to put it. We’re brought up to be ambitious and conscientious, to strive to be successful at whatever we choose to do. Society does what it can to equip us along the way. We’re in a hugely priviledged position.

Personally, I’ve always believed that I need to have fully developed at least three ideas before I consider myself a success. I have no idea why I think I need to be a success, or why I think I need to prove myself three times, or even who I’m trying to prove it all to. But I do know that I enjoy building and starting things, so each time I decide to go through the process it’s because I enjoy it.

Despite what we constantly hear, though, it’s not just the “taking part that counts”. Whatever we do has to succeed – or lead us on to something else that does – if we’re to “reach our potential”.

Many social entrepreneurs live in this world. Life is about taking the seed of an idea, building it into something meaningful, and then ideally doing it all over again. Do it just the once and it might be luck. Do it a few times and you’re smart. The problem with this approach is that you never quite know when you’re “there”. At what point do you stop pushing and settle for what you have? Surely it’s not possible to constantly self-improve?

As someone who’s constantly pushing themselves to improve, I think about this a lot. Looking at the Zen Habits website, I’m not alone. Quashing the Self-Improvement Urge is a wonderfully reflective post on the subject, and is well worth a read if you’re in the same boat. As Leo Babauta himself concludes:

Quash the urge to improve, to be better. It only makes you feel inadequate. And then explore the world of contentment. It’s a place of wonderment.

I wonder how well this approach would sit with today’s social entrepreneurs and innovators?

The rise of the reluctant innovator

Last month I attended the Global Competitiveness Forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. More business-focused than developmental, it gave me the chance to take our work not only to a new audience, but to a new region. The “Conscious Capitalism” panel I sat on also focused on some of the questions I’ve been increasingly thinking about, and the conference theme of “innovation as a means to competitiveness” resonated.

Despite that, it was never going to be easy to get away from the fact that this was primarily a business conference. The discussion was dominated by how you might “harness innovation”, if that were ever possible. How could businesses become innovation hubs or centres of excellence? Why is it important to link the business, technology and education communities (something Silicon Valley seems to do so well)? It was a fascinating three days, but many of the delegates seemed to be missing a trick. (To be fair, many of them probably weren’t looking).

Entrepreneurs were worshipped, and business models praised, but much of the focus only took into account those people with an eye for business, or a knack for creating compelling business models, or making money. I found myself sitting in the middle of an “innovation divide”.

After a few years working in the non-profit/technology world, I’d say the landscape could be summed up as:

1. People with ideas and business models are called entrepreneurs.
2. Everyone else is an innovator.

The interesting thing for me is that, whilst the mechanics of entrepreneurship can be taught, most innovation is random, personal, demand-driven, inspired and instinctive. In short, innovation occurs naturally in the real world. Balance sheets and P&Ls, on the other hand, do not.

From where I sit, the whole “social entrepreneurship” discussion to date seems to have been dominated by the business side of things – those predominantly in the first line. Innovators unable to make a business case for their ideas struggle for visibility. To compound the problem further, for technology innovators in particular, “unsustainable” is a four letter word in their industry, resulting in even more doors closing ahead of them. Examples of fully sustainable mobile-based innovations are few and far between, as anyone who works in “mobiles for development” will know.

Innovators with world-changing ideas, solid business models and a steady income stream are the creme de la creme. They’re the ones paraded around at social entrepreneurship conferences. Many started off wanting to be “social entrepreneurs”, and many are highly ambitious and studied hard to get there. I’ve probably met hundreds over the years.

Most innovators I know never started off as such. Few remember ever saying to themselves “I want to innovate”. They’re what I’d call “reluctant innovators” – people who found themselves in the midst of a problem they felt compelled to solve. Frontline healthcare workers who see a medial problem with no solution and come up with one, or a farmer who loses a crop but finds an answer and implements and shares it. The majority of people in the developing world finding everyday solutions to everyday problems are reluctant innovators. They didn’t ask to be, they became. Real world experience was their education, not an MBA.

One of the best examples of a “reluctant innovator” I’ve come across is Laura Stachel, who I first met at a conference in New York back in 2009. Laura’s organisation – WE CARE Solar – designs portable solar lighting kits for maternity wards in developing countries (click the image above to watch her five minute Pop!Tech 2010 video).

When she first headed out to Nigeria, she was planning to work on something entirely different, but after realising that a simple lack of lighting was responsible for an unacceptable number of mother and child deaths – maternal mortality rates in Nigeria are among the highest in the world, with a ratio of 1,100 maternal deaths occurring for every 100,000 live births – she turned her attention to helping design, build and distribute solar kits to solve it (see photo below). Laura never intended to build and run an organisation, and never chose to become a solar innovator, but seeing a problem she felt compelled to fix, she reluctantly became one.

I would also count myself as a reluctant innovator – FrontlineSMS was never planned – and the team behind Ushahidi would likely feel the same. They were simply responding to a crisis in their country. None of us went out looking for something to solve. A problem found us, and we felt compelled to solve it.

I’d argue that most of the more successful innovations in ICT4D have come about this way – solutions created not by ‘traditional’ innovators, or technologists, but regular people who find themselves on the frontline of a challenge, and who decide to not turn their backs but to take it on. I think we can all learn from this – the social entrepreneurship sector included.

Further reading
Cometh the hour. Cometh the technology
Mechanics vs. motivation: The two faces of social innovation
Enabling the inspiration generation
Wrong model. Wrong place
Mobile technology and the last mile

Further viewing
The innovation/entrepreneurship divide

Tim Smit. In tweets.

Tim Smit may be an extraordinary individual, but he’s no ordinary entrepreneur. Founder of The Eden Project – described by some as the “Eighth Wonder of The World” – Tim has taken an unconventional if not fascinating path. By all means read those Business Bibles – but then tear them up. Read Marketing 101 – but then toss it aside. In the sometimes rigid and stuffy world of social entrepreneurship, Tim is a breath of fresh air. And his short talk last weekend at Emerge 2010 in Oxford was nothing short of inspirational.

Courtesy of Twitter, here’s a short summary of a “lucky 13” key points that stood out most for me.

Context: Never forget what you were like as a child. Push the boundaries of your imagination, live out your dreams, find that one thing which truly “switches you on”. And then relentlessly pursue it.

Context: Don’t get caught up in the lingo. Buzzwords mean little if they’re not backed up by very real action.

Context: Inspiration and innovation can happen any time, any place. No person and no structure have exclusive rights over the best ideas. Unconventional can be king. It usually is and, what’s more, it will usually come with the most compelling story.

Context: Seize the moment – it won’t last forever, and there will likely never be a “best time” to execute your idea.

Context: Not everyone will be able to take that “big risk”, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be able to join you on a journey. Inspire others to join you. Don’t travel alone. Build it, and they may just come.

Context: In ICT4D we talk about silos. Take every opportunity to step outside yours. Be open minded. Meet people who, on the surface, have very little in common with you. Explore new horizons. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Context: If you don’t follow your instincts, you may always regret it. Don’t put yourself in that position. Success is just as much about “positive thinking” as “positive doing”.

Context: Make the art of the possible seem possible for everyone. If people can imagine themselves in your shoes then your story will not only resonate, but will gain a reality and life of its very own.

Context: Organisations are only as good as the people who show up every day to work for them.

Context: Actions speak louder than words. Anyone can talk about anything. Creating and building doesn’t happen on the sidelines. Beware of the inexperienced “expert”.

Context: If you have good fortune, pass it on. Use it to help others. Think about who you were, not what you’ve become.

Context: For some people, anything they haven’t had a hand in is rubbish. Quite often, they’ve never actually done anything themselves. Avoid negativity. It’s a cop-out. (Note: Negativity is different to constructive criticism).

Context: Language is EVERYTHING.

This is the second time I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Tim speak. If you ever get the chance, grab it. After all, Tim might be the person you never knew you were meant to meet.