Neil Tambe

Let’s go.

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Ideas about how ideas get big

I'm starting to have insomnia from time to time, which is probably a bad thing.  Fortunately though, some of my better thinking comes at the edge of sleeping and awake life (if I can remember it the next day).

Yesterday, I was also lucky to have been inspired by Josh Linker (read more about him here) as he was speaking at our office's quarterly all-hands meeting.  Sadly, I had to miss the first 60 minutes of his remarks due to a client call.  He spoke about creativity.  I can't really go into more detail because I really only caught the tail end of his talk (which I'm super bummed about).

Earlier in the day we also had a "Detroit Community Involvement" Panel Discussion.  One of the themes of the discussion was that community involvements begin with just a small moment or conversation that blossoms into something larger (and usually really awesome).

Thinking about ideas and how they get big

Both of these combined got me to thinking about ideas and how they go from "start to awesome"...let's break this down into a process map of sorts:

Pre-idea observations, listening and reflecting -> Idea forms -> Idea has increasing returns and blows up

  • Pre-idea observations - this is the step where something brews in your mind, it's a product of what you see, know, hear, do and feel
  • Idea forms - this is the really hard step where all those stewing things form into an articulated thought that can be expressed to other people
  • Idea blows up - this is the fun part when people build upon your idea and it gets momentum - it "catches legs", if you will
Josh, from what I could gather, was really going deep on the "Idea forms" step - which is really, really important.  It's so hard to get some stuff in your head out onto paper or into a group of people.  He had some awesome tips and stories about it.  Again, he may have discussed other things while I wasn't there, but this is the essence of what I heard while I was.

In our Detroit Community Involvement Panel we kind of had the perspective of "ideas blowing up".  We got a flavor for the awesome things which can happen when people come together around a common cause.

Now, let me get back to the big picture for a second.  It seems to me like there's a BIG jump from an idea forming to it blowing up.  It's almost as if there's a step in the process flow we've forgotten:

Pre-idea observations, listening and reflecting -> Idea forms -> ? -> Idea has increasing returns and blows up
I think there's this often unnoticed step that is really, really crucial in the creative process - I'll call it "launch".  And by this I mean, someone has to get the idea off the ground before it fades away.

The way I figure it, after a great idea or brainstorm there are probably lots of ideas.  And, there are probably many millions of great ideas floating around people's heads across the world.  A non-trivial percentage of those ideas are probably already expressed out loud or even in some document, somewhere - whether it's on a napkin, a whiteboard, or a PowerPoint presentation.

Those ideas never "get legs", I think, because someone has to follow through on them.  Someone has to document them and share them after they are concieved.  Someone has to marshal people, expertise and legitimacy to the idea to get it off the ground.

I liken it to a NASA analogy.  When launching a spacecraft there are two mission controls - one in Florida and one in Houston.  The one in Florida has control of the mission for about 7 seconds and Houston gets it for the rest of the time.  Why?  Because the first 7 seconds (the launch) of a flight are so different and incredibly difficult.  So, so many crazy things can happen.  So, NASA splits the mission into two components (let's set aside all the time and energy required to even put a spacecraft on the launchpad for this discussion) the launch and the flight.

I think the same is true for ideas.  Some ideas (which may be great or not so great) seem to launch themselves without much intervention.  But many ideas seem like they're left on the launch pad - even though they are great, great ideas.

So my learning here is, don't forget about the very deliberate step of "launching" ideas after they are conceived and even loosely articulated.  The only way to send an idea to the moon is to get it off the ground first.  Sometimes that's easy and sometimes that's hard, I think.  Either way, it has to be done.  Sometimes it has to be a very deliberate step in the process.

How to launch an idea
This raises an obvious question - what falls into the discipline of "launching" an idea...how do you do it?  Well, I think there are a couple things to think about:

  • Prototype it, fast - I think getting the idea into a share-able format is really important.  More importantly, though, get it share-able as fast as you possibly can.  Don't invest 100 hours, invest 2.  Then share it as fast as you can and improve it as you go.  It's hard to stick to something for 100 hours when you have no momentum to begin with.  Stop at two hours and get some fresh insight, people to help you and some excitement.  Also, once you start sharing it you may realize that you don't really like the idea or could use your time better on something else.  So sharing it quickly can save you 98 hours worth of work on something that you don't even want to pursue.
  • Share, but listen more than you speak - So, share the idea.  Obviously.  But, don't forget to listen either.  If you could launch the idea yourself, then why are you talking to other people?  Don't only share or only listen - do both simultaneously.
  • Focus - big ideas can get wayyy too big really quickly.  Don't let them buckle under their own weight.  This isn't to say narrow ideas into small boxes which suddenly become irrelevant.  Rather, I mean set boundaries so you can focus your time and resources going deep in a new and interesting way.  Don't irreverently add scope.  Add the right scope and cut the things that don't matter.  Then, grow the idea into something bigger. Go big, but not foolishly.  Be disciplined.
Anyway, these are just some random thoughts on a Saturday morning.  Thanks for entertaining some of my insomniac musings.  Now it's time for some Raisin Bran and some GMAT-ing.

Also - I can't wait to talk about progress to our skills-based volunteerism pilot program (which we're starting to call Grassroots Pro-bono, actually) this idea is starting to catch legs as we speak.  Phase II is going to be legit (thankfully, I think we're clever enough to make it work).

For the city,
Neil

Please do say hello: neil.tambe[at]gmail[dot]com