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Idea To Impact
Published July 2015
1. think thoughts no one else is dumb enough to think and work harder than reasonable
2. confuse your friends
3. broadcast repeatedly until everyone is bored
A cynical-but-realistic summary of how I go from idea to impact.
Impact is how I have always judged myself. I remember coming out of my first ever CS 201 lecture on top-down development saying, "This is stupid. I'm going to change the way people program." Pretty arrogant for an 18-year-old, but at least it gave me a way to measure progress (since then I’ve gotten even older).
I had no idea how to get from my ideas to actually having impact. Having tried unsuccessfully many times and successfully a few times, I now recognize the outlines of a sequence that seems to improve my chances. That's what I am writing about here.
This is an essay that was eighteen years in the making. I first tried to write about leadership in 1997 and failed miserably. I can't tell you how good it feels to finally get this out of my head.
Here are the stages:
Find the totem
I had to learn about each stage separately. Each one contains activities that my 18-year-old self would never have believed were necessary.
Before I go into detail, let me first say that one difference between success and failure turning an idea into impact is work. Lots and lots of work. Consistently, the people who have impact work harder than other people. Working hard isn't enough, but it's necessary.
Work, oh, and time. I gave a RailsConf keynote in 2008 where I laid out the 20-year timelines of my most impactful ideas. Each took twenty, two zero, years from idea to general acceptance. It's just going to take a while.
Okay, so I have an idea and I'd like to get it out there. There are two questions I need to ask myself before it's worth proceeding:
What is my intention towards my audience's power to choose?
What do I hope to gain by spreading this idea?
I am controlling (thanks to Larry Constantine for pointing this out). When I am not in my right mind, I see other people as extensions of myself. I'll do whatever I can think of to get them to act how I want them to act. I know, I know, that trick never works, but it doesn't stop me from trying.
I'm not ready to spread an idea until I am comfortable with the idea that the people I am talking to are going to make up their own minds. When I go into a conversation intending for the other person to have complete freedom to choose for themselves, everything works better. I listen better. I explain better. I respond to objections better.
I also need to check my own motivations. What is the balance between getting validation, selflessly serving, and pure geek joy? Sometimes I'll be emotionally attached to an idea but only because I want someone to tell me I'm brilliant, not because it's actually that good of an idea.
I've sat on potentially-good ideas because my heart just wasn't in the right place. I learned to do this because I've also gone ahead when my heart wasn't in the right place, and there is no surer way to twist and pervert an idea than pushing it as a desperately glory-seeking control freak.
The first step for me in exploring an idea is to adopt it myself. I don't know of any path from idea to impact that doesn't go through this stage. There are a host of advantages to personal adoption:
Failure is quick and private. This lets me explore and discard my many lousy ideas with a minimal investment of time and energy. Worthwhile innovation is a quantity game as well as a quality game.
Personal stories are convincing. Assuming the idea goes well, it's great to have personal experiences to relate as part of beginning to communicate it. "Well, I faced that dilemma this morning, and here's how I resolved it..." Personal experience also encourages empathy for those considering an idea for the first time.
Skin in the game. Trying the idea myself aligns my incentives with my audience. I'm only ever encouraging you to take medicine that I'm already taking. I want encouragement to move away from ideas that attract attention without actually delivering value.
Personal adoption is a lot of work. This phase can last years, trying different variations, researching the theory behind the idea, waiting. Everybody is so damned impatient about innovation, but I've never had time pressure or competition for any idea that I've turned into substantial impact. Waiting for the right moment is a powerful skill. It keeps you from lighting off the rocket before it is fueled.
When I have convinced myself by personal experience that an idea has the potential for impact, I start talking about it. I always start one-on-one. My explanation is going to be terrible at first. Failing one person at a time is much less expensive than shouting my confusion from the rooftop. I get much more feedback one-on-one. This part of the explanation makes sense, that part is irrelevant, and this part should go first. Thanks for listening. Next.
I'm up front with my friends about this process. "I think I figured out something this morning. Do you mind if I run it by you?" I do that ten times (or a hundred) and my patter is pretty well set.
These conversations help me find the spirit of the idea. I know the mechanics and maybe the theory of the idea, but I don't know the intellectual and emotional hooks that will interest and motivate other people to try what, if I'm doing it right, sounds pretty crazy. I call this the "totem", the embodiment of the spirit of the idea. The totem comes in many forms (each of these could be its own book):
Name. Names connect people with ideas. Names suggest similarity and difference. Sometimes names are pure whimsy.
Motto. The right phrase can evoke emotional energy and transmute it into action: "Kill the mainframe," "A computer on every desk".
Metric. Data measures progress and helps prune priorities.
Mascot. A caricature of a person, animal, or object can help people identify with the difference introduced by an idea.
Gesture. Stylized movements can reinforce an idea, whether it's a salute, the
, or my tradeoff gesture.
Utopia. Taking seriously the reductio ad absurdum of your idea and casting the first steps as a shadow of the goal can remove the fear of taking the first step.
Abbreviation. Acronyms and nicknames can make in-group conversations concise and precise at the risk of alienating newcomers.
Story. Stories about the application of the idea can connect with listeners and ease the first action.
Diagram. The right three boxes and two arrows can demystify the idea.
For me, finding totems is an intuitive process. I'll be in the middle of an explanation, not really knowing what I'm going to say next, when a visualization pops into my head. With my inner editor securely bound and gagged I try it out.
After repeating my explanation enough times, either my idea is back on the drawing board or I have shrunk my explanation by nine tenths and it's starting to sound slick. Now it's time for the rooftop.
If I had told 18-year-old Kent how many times you had to repeat an idea before people would act, he would have just sneered and shaken his head. You have a better idea, people want to do better, they do your idea. Right? Right? Wrong.
With a powerful, validated idea and a refined presentation it's time to broadcast it. Over. And over. And over. And over. And you get the idea. Every idea I've turned into impact I have repeated for years.
The duration of the Brute Repetition phase depends on the ambition of the idea. Years and even decades are not unusual for me. I should see progress along the way (if not, see "Giving Up" below), but it just takes a long, long time.
Along the way I pay attention to what other people are saying about the idea. When I hear someone repeat the idea to someone else without referring to me, then I know I have won. I can drop the repetition and move on to the next idea. I have lots of ideas and I don't want to spend longer on any one of them than I have to.
I use blogging (like this), Twitter (like that), speeches, one-minute videos, Facebook groups, and maybe someday comics to get the word out. I pay attention to the response and tune my message along the way. I also continue applying my idea along the way so I have fresh stories (plus I just enjoy doing stuff).
As I've mentioned several times, most of my ideas are crap. A few are shockingly good (JUnit). Others are big and just take time (Extreme Programming). I can't tell at the lightbulb moment which is which. Evaluation only comes with experience. To maximize impact, I need to try my ideas for no longer than necessary to discard them. Then if I fail to fail, I win.
Personal adoption lets me rapidly sift ideas. I tend to be too solitary in my thinking, and thus end up rejecting ideas that could have been saved by collaboration, but that's life. Thinking about how much more I could be accomplishing if only I was perfect is foolish.
Failed ideas can be the seeds of successful ideas. "This would have worked if I had a pluggable drawing editor framework." Say that enough times and you might just figure out how to build a pluggable drawing editor framework.
What other people think of my ideas has little relevance on whether I should give up. Oh, if 100% of listeners don't get it I'll think about it, but a 95% rejection rate just means I'm looking about far enough out.
Mandatory Meta-Circular Reference
I'm a computer scientist, so I'm bound by law and custom to mention that this essay is an example of the process described in this essay. I have been practicing "Idea to Impact" for thirty mumble years. I have been trying to explain it for almost twenty. It's in the last year or two that my explanations started to feel coherent to me. This is the first public presentation of the idea I've made, so you can guess that you'll hear about from in the future. Repeatedly. Thank you Jordan, Alexander, Jonas, Maddie, Mengmeng, and my other students at Facebook for providing feedback.