As a nation of innovators, we adore our disruptive ideas — the technologies that change everything about everything, the sudden bursts of thought that punctuate the story of our civilization. We also acknowledge that for every brilliant idea that makes it to the big time, there are thousands that don’t. But we have a tendency to shy away from examining why those thousands fail.
It might be comforting to assume these ideas failed because they just weren’t as good as the ones that were successful; unfortunately, the reality is far less romantic, and on its face perhaps less fair. We’re told that all you have to do is build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door; if history is any indicator, nothing could be further from the truth.
Great ideas fail because unless you can successfully implement that mousetrap, it doesn’t matter how good it is. Above and beyond that great idea, a successful implementation requires a careful combination of timing, conviction, and teamwork.
There’s no substitute for good timing. Knowing you’ve got a great idea is a wonderful thing; knowing whether the time for it is right is another matter.
Remember Picturephone? Of course you don’t. It was AT&T’s highly-advanced, hugely innovative and technically elegant video phone system that debuted in 1970 and utterly flopped on the market. Historians can talk about how it was too expensive (plenty of people could afford it) or too bulky on a person’s desk (still a smaller footprint than most PCs), but what it was was plain-old ahead of its time. It took a culture reshaped by decades of television and social media to accept what was simply too intrusive for 1970: an always-on video camera in your home.
The timing wasn’t right, and the great idea failed.
Resistance is anything but futile. Disruptive ideas are going to challenge the status quo, and they’re usually the ones with the better resources. Resistance from those who benefit from “the way things have always been done” is always going to be there, and if you’re not ready to push back, they’ll win.
Pushing back doesn’t always mean trying to overcome the dominant market force; sometimes, you can subvert it from within. When the Pacific Car & Foundry Company sensed the golden age of the railroad might be coming to a close — and its days manufacturing railroad cars might be numbered — the company shifted gears to follow what it saw as the trend of the future: long-haul trucking, bringing goods right to a customer’s doorstep. Today PACCAR Inc is the parent company for Kenworth and Peterbilt (as well as Foden, Daf and Leyland trucks overseas); other railcar manufacturers that stuck with “the way things have always been done” weren’t so fortunate.
You can’t execute without teamwork. The early bird might get the worm, but if he doesn’t have the support of an effective team, he’s not going to get to keep it.
Look no further than the development of the telephone for proof. Decades of profits (and continuing innovation) didn’t fall to the first person to invent the telephone — that was a Staten Island immigrant named Antonio Meucci, who in 1856 managed to talk to his wife two floors up. Nor did they land in the lap of the designer of the better, more practical telephone — Elisha Gray’s 1876 diagrams used common water as a variable resistance medium.
The victor was Alexander Bell, because not only was he every bit the innovator as Meucci and Gray, he had the resources in place to take advantage of those innovations when he needed to. In this case, he beat Gray to a patent by having a dedicated lawyer on his team willing to physically bring the patent application to Washington, D.C. on a moment’s notice.
It also probably didn’t hurt Bell’s chances knowing the patent examiner on staff owed a bunch of money to his lawyer. In retrospect, was the whole episode a bum deal for Gray? Probably. But that advantage only underscores the point further: having the right team around you can make all the difference.