One of the key points that Peter Sims makes in Little Bets is that if you wait until your idea is perfect before you act on it, your chances of success are greatly reduced. This means that if you are trying to innovate, you have to be able to work with what you have right now.
When I worked at the radio station, we used to joke about the technical manager that fixed the control board using “a piece of string, a bandaid and a fish” – though I’m still a bit fuzzy on the role of the fish. In New Zealand, this spirit is captured by Number 8 Wire – the idea that anything can be fixed with a bit of barbed wire combined with Kiwi ingenuity.
Here’s another example from the surprisingly good and very well written book The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World’s Most Elegant Woman by Karen Karbo:
… Bob Dylan, another master of self-invention tried once to explain his success: “I was just doing what I could with what I had where I was.” He was not just making it up as he went along; he was also using everything he stumbled upon. He was both weaving the rope and climbing it at the same time.
And so was Coco Chanel.
Most of us, when we land upon a great idea, a lifesaving idea, immediately turn it into our baby. And like our real-life babies, we only want the best for it. We love it. We coddle it. It’s our great idea, and who knows when we might have another one! We want to implement it at the right time with the best materials possible. We want the stars to be right.
But Chanel’s chutzpah dictated the opposite. She was going to reinvent the female wardrobe, and she was going to do it now with whatever was at hand.
Here are some key points:
- “Both weaving the rope and climbing it at the same time” is a great metaphor for innovation. It captures the imaginative leap that you have to make to execute a new idea. Even though new innovations usually come from connecting ideas that already exist, we’re still making this leap.
- Ideas actually are a bit like babies: this is a metaphor that I’ve used before myself. We can think of ideas as rare and precious, like one of our babies, or like an albatross chick. Or, we can think of them as numerous, like salmon eggs, where the key issue isn’t nurturing our single idea, but rather it is to figure out which idea is the good one.
- Finally, I love the just-get-to-work attitudes shown by both Dylan and Chanel. Sims is right in saying that waiting too long to execute an idea leads to failure. You can’t wait for permission to innovate. The way to find the good ideas is to try them out right now, using whatever resources you have available.
The odds were heavily stacked against Coco Chanel when she started out. And yet she really did reinvent women’s clothing (and she’d make a terrific topic for an Ada Lovelace Day post, which everyone should be thinking about now). She did it by having a series of great ideas (and a few that weren’t so good), and more importantly, by executing them to see which ones really were great.
That’s innovation – doing what you can, with what you have, where you are.