Don’t Push Rocks, Roll Snowballs

Innovation is the process of idea management. One of the critical steps to successful innovation is getting your idea to spread. Hugh MacLeod’s outstanding new book Evil Plans has a lot about how to get your ideas to spread more effectively. One of his tenets is that we should create random acts of traction.

There are two important parts to this idea. The first is that we need to create social objects that have traction – in other words, we are using a pull strategy. The second part is the random bit – we don’t know in advance which ideas actually will gain traction. So we need to experiment, and try out a lot of different ideas.

He starts to frame this idea by quoting Doc Searls:

Tell ya what. I’m fifty-seven years old, and I’ve been pushing large rocks for short distances up a lot of hills, for a long time. Now, with blogging, I get to roll snowballs down hills. Some don’t go very far. But some get pretty big once they start rolling.

See, each snowball grows as others link to the original idea, and add their own thoughts and ideas. By the time the snowball gets big enough to have some impact, it really isn’t my idea any more.

Anyway, at this point in my life I’d rather roll snowballs than push rocks.

Hugh has more great ideas per paragraph than nearly anyone writing these days (he’s in the same league as Charlie Stross) – here is how he follows that point up:

My friends, Dennis Howlett and James Governor, both technology consultants, certainly understand this. As they can only realistically execute on 10% of their ideas, they don’t seem to mind giving away the remaining 90% for free, via their blogs. If one of their free ideas gets “Random Acts of Traction”, it’s great PR for their businesses. It leads to conversations eventually. Conversations that eventually lead to paid gigs.

This only works, of course, if you can make your “snowballs” quickly and inexpensively enough. If you spend too much time worrying about it, you lose. If you try to control where the snowballs go after you’ve released them down the hill, you lose.

“Fail cheap. Fail fast. Fail often. Always make new mistakes.” –Esther Dyson. Words to live by. Exactly.

There are a ton of important ideas tucked in there. The bit about Howlett and Governor having too many ideas to execute themselves is important. It illustrates why we have to have a good process for selecting ideas.

The Dyson quote emphasises the importance of experimenting, and then learning from the ideas that don’t work.

But to me, the important point is that we need to send the snowballs out and see if they gain traction. This is a classic pull strategy. How do we execute this?

Here is how John Seeley Brown, John Hagel and Lang Davison describe their book about this process:

In many respects, The Power of Pull can be read as an attempt to reinstate the central role of socially embedded practice in driving knowledge creation and performance improvement relative to the recent emphasis in the management literature of process reengineering. In short, companies need to refocus technology innovation on providing tools to amplify the efforts of communities of practice to drive performance improvement

If you want to roll snowballs, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Your idea has to meet genuine needs. Pull strategies are based on ideas that meet real needs for people. If you are going to spread the idea through a community, people need to talk about it. They will only do this if you have created tangible value for them.
  • Pull strategies rely on networks. Which strategy is best for doing this? This is still a controversial question. Many people advocate targeting people within the network that are highly influential. I prefer the “big seed” approach put forward by Duncan Watts. Greg Satell explains this idea:

    As I explained in an earlier post, he calls his approach Big Seed Marketing. His reasoning is that since influence is so hard to track, it is much better simply to start with a lot of reach (i.e. a big seed) and use social media to amplify it. It seems to me to be an incredibly reasonable and sound approach.

  • You need to try out a lot of different ideas. Just as you seed your ideas as widely as possible, you try out as many as you can. As Hugh says, you need to roll a lot of snowballs down the hill.

Push strategies are attractive because when you are pushing your ideas, it always seems like you are active, and that you are in control of how successful the idea will be. However, this feeling of control is an illusion. Instead of betting everything on one big idea, we’re usually better off trying out a lot of smaller ones – especially if our environment is turbulent.

So I’m with Doc and Hugh – it’s better to be rolling snowballs than to be pushing rocks.

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

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

5 thoughts on “Don’t Push Rocks, Roll Snowballs

  1. I fully agree Brian!

    Sam, two of the authors of Cluetrain Manifesto have continued to write excellent stuff – Doc Searls and David Weinberger. Both have blogs worth following.

  2. Pull-thinking works! I’m working on a postgraduate research project called ‘Accurate Ideation’ – just reached the stage of being ready to test a human-mind-centred ‘generative’ model of the triggering conditions for generating outcomes such as ‘best-pathway’ ideas. The model is based on the proposition that the subconscious functional mind sets up the requisite or spark for shaped ideas to come forth. Creating a ‘snowball’ physically mimics this action, so if the ‘snowball’ is focused on some kind of desired experiential outcome for the person concerned, e.g. I want ideas for a project in a way that will bring people around it – then that imagined outcome is very likely to spark the creative thinking and actions that will open the way for ideas, without the original creator having to manage what kind of ideas or people might then fill the space.

    I’m looking for researchers and like-minded views – any offers?

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