Putting in the Hours

When I was in university I spent a whole lot of time at the campus radion station. I started out as a trainee DJ in the first semester. I was in the practice studio constantly, spinning records, making segues from one cut to the next, talking on the microphone and taping it so I could try to get better. And I hung out with the experiences DJs while they were on the air – watching how they did things and learning everything I could through osmosis (and asking a lot of questions). Whenever the trainees were asked to volunteer for something, I was there – cleaning up the station, and doing all kinds of little crummy jobs that no one else wanted to do.

At the end of my semester as a trainee, all that work was rewarded in two ways. I was given my own show for second semester (Mondays from 12-3 pm!), and I was given the position of Assistant Music Director. AMD was a lousy job, but it had some good parts to it as well. Every day I had to walk over to the post office to pick up the mail (which mostly consisted of vinyl records – so hauling them back to the station was a pain), and I did any other crummy jobs that we couldn’t find eager trainees to do. I also reviewed 5-10 new records a week. The Program Director and the Music Director had first pick of the really good records to review, so I had to sort through all the stuff that no one had heard of before. There were a few gems in there, but there was an unbelievable amount of crap too. That’s when I first started thinking about the importance of filtering.

I kept working hard (and having a lot of fun), and over time I did a lot of stuff at the station. I was a DJ all the way through, and a few people seemed to enjoy my shows. After my time as AMD, I was Program Director and then Station Manager. After a few years, I really felt like I had accomplished a fair bit at the station.

Then I took a break of a couple of years from university. I worked during that time and saved up money to pay for the last bit when I went back. While I was doing this, I went to see about maybe getting involved with the college radio station in my home town. I hung around a bit, asked about how to get a show. The answer was pretty much the same as it was the first time around – volunteer to do a bunch of the crummy work that no one else wants to do, do that for a while, and then I’d eventually earn my shot to get on the air.

I started doing that – going in once a week to add up stats on how many times the new releases got played. And I hated every minute of it. I just didn’t have the stomach for working my way up the pecking order all over again. I was 20 years old, and thought that I’d earned some respect. Back then, in a lot of ways, I was pretty stupid.

I was reminded of all of this recently because there have been a couple of situations recently where I’ve had to earn respect – where I’ve figuratively had to go back to doing the crummy work that no one else wants to prove that I’m worthy. Since my time in radio, I’ve learned how to do that a little bit better. Social networks have been a useful part of that learning process. Every time I enter a new one, I’ve realised that I’m starting at 0, and have to work my up. It took nine months of writing this blog before it really started to click with people. There were plenty of chances to give it up in that time. But we kept writing, and kept telling one person at a time about the blog. We put in the hours and the blog has grown.

It’s a useful lesson to have learned.

So what does this have to do with innovation? Plenty. The main lesson here is that I think it’s important to never assume that we have already earned respect or someone’s business simply because we’ve already had some success with others. Every time we ask someone to adopt our idea, whether it’s a proposal for a new product, a new service, or a new way of doing things, we are starting at 0.

We can’t assume that they already know how great our idea is, or that the value in it is self-evident. This is a particularly important lesson if we are trying to cross domains. If you are a lab scientist trying to commercialise your great discovery, out in business your reputation starts at 0, no matter how much reknown you’re held in as a scientist.

It’s easy to get caught up in how great our ideas are – but when it comes time to get them to diffuse, we have to win people over one at a time. And with every one of them, we’re starting at 0. A little humility goes a long way when we’re innovating. Every time we start something new, we have to put in the hours.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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8 thoughts on “Putting in the Hours

  1. Amen to that!

    “Every time we ask someone to adopt our idea, whether it’s a proposal for a new product, a new service, or a new way of doing things, we are starting at 0.”

  2. Tim,

    This is certainly how it has been with the organisation I am running. We are a non-profit and aside from a very moderate presence online, the best way we manage to recruit people is by word of mouth.

    Our membership was flat for the largest part of the first year until -all of a sudden- people started to turn up. In a matter of weeks we had 3 times as many people join and become regular members.

    What is interesting about all of this is that we did absolutely nothing to generate this “tipping point”. There was no strategic shift, tactical move or whatever. We just kept the course focussing on what we do best with little corrections every now and then.

    We figured that we simply had to “do the time” for people to recognise our work and connect with it. On the way we learnt a lot of valuable lesson (e.g. the more people ‘promise’ they will be in touch, the less likely they will be). But mostly we had to rely on our instinct that it will work.

    I think that, inevitably, success requires a certain level of madness; a willingness to believe that you are doing the best job possible and that you will succeed even though all present indicators say otherwise.

    Being a ‘visionary’ is often the retroactive crowning process of (accidentally) successful bouts madness.

  3. I think you’re right Marco – especially in the last two paragraphs. Our evaluations of peoples’ skills are often retrosprective, as we try to fit a story that makes sense to us on top of their actions. It’s a dangerous habit, I think…

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