This Might Not Work

This Might Not Work

The Most Important Phrase in Innovation

What’s the most important phrase in innovation?

You could make the case for “That’s interesting.”  Lots of great ideas start with curiousity.  If you want to become more innovative, increasing your awareness of what’s going on around you is a great way to start.  And when you find interesting things, you can start to learn more about them.

Another candidate is “That really bugs me.”  We know that a lot of innovation is irritation-based.  When things don’t work right, we want to fix them.  It’s an important innovation driver.

My vote for the Most Important Phrase in Innovation goes to “This might not work.”  You can’t innovate without saying this.  If there’s not a measurable chance that your idea won’t work, then it’s not new.

This Might Not Work


That’s the back of the bonus book that was part of Seth Godin’s kickstarter project last year (for an interesting discussion of that, see this from Dan Blank, and his follow-up interview with Godin).  It referred to a few things – the idea of making a 1200 page book out of blog posts, and raising money to fund a book through kickstarter, and launching it without publisher or media support, etc.

Godin has been consistently running experiments over the past few years (like the kickstarter campaign, and The Domino Project), trying to figure out what the next business model for publishing might be.  Here is a clip from his blog post today, talking about the blockbuster mentality in Hollywood:

But since they pay so much, they have no choice, they think, but to say, “This must work!” So they polish off the edges, follow the widely-known secret formula and create banality. No glory, it seems, with guts.

Every meeting is about avoiding coming anywhere near the sentence, “this might not work,” and instead giving ammunition to the groupthink belief that this must work.

And as soon as you do that, you’ve guaranteed it won’t.

If you think that it must work, you’ve guaranteed it won’t.

In other words, you can’t innovate without saying “This might not work.”

The Key to Innovation is Experimenting

Journalism is in turmoil right now – no one has any idea what the next business will look like.  It seems like the the big publishers and news firms will only try out ideas they believe must work.  And so, they don’t.

When faced with a high level of uncertainty like this, we must experiment.  I saw a great example of this today in an inspiring talk by Mia Freedman.  She talked about being named editor of Cosmopolitan Australia at the age of 24, and how she eventually left that position.  After a brief foray into television, she started a blog – (you can hear or read the full story in this interview with Timbo Reid).  Mamamia is now one of the most popular websites in Australia.

It all sounds pretty straightforward, right?

Not really.  Freedman did a great job of then explaining all of the challenges she faced in building the site, the points where it might have did, and some of the doubts that she had as she went along.  It became clear that all the way through, “this might not work” was very real.

If you think about, the idea of leaving the position of Editor of Cosmopolitan, Cleo and Dolly to start a blog would have sounded insane when Freedman did it.  And yet, she that’s what she did.  And now, she might be figuring out what the next business model for media looks like.

The Flipside to “This Might Not Work”

Why are we willing to try things when this might not work?

Because it might work.

The only way to change things is to try things that might not work.  This, of course, does not guarantee that things will work out – your idea might be truly nuts, or impossible.  But we have to aim high.  The reward when we do is that this might work.

Innovation is challenging because to innovate we must seek out uncertainty.  For most people, this isn’t comfortable – that’s why we don’t like “this might not work.”  Nevertheless, if we want to do work that makes a difference, that’s where we need to be.  To grow we have to try, stumble, and learn.

So give it a go.  It might work.



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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.

6 thoughts on “This Might Not Work

  1. As a proponent and practitioner of irritation-based innovation, I’d vote for “that really bugs me”.

    That bias notwithstanding, though, it seems to me that a lot of innovation happens because of naivete: entrepreneurs who are not aware of – or consciously ignore – the conventional wisdom that “this can’t be done”. I remember Scott Svenson, co-founder of Seattle Coffee Company – which was later acquired by Starbucks – speaking at NWEN’s Entrepreneur University 2005 saying that one of their greatest strengths was what they didn’t know (e.g., they didn’t realize that opening 8 stores in 12 days was something that not even Starbucks would have attempted).

    So with all due respect to you and Seth Godin, while I would agree that “Failure is not an option” is not an option in any truly innovative initiative, I would also argue that some element of “this might work” is an essential ingredient in any entrepreneurial endeavor … though I suppose that, strictly speaking, “this might not work” does not preclude a parallel belief that “this might work”.

    BTW, I can’t tell whether the uses of “now” in places I expected to read “not” are typos … if not, I suspect we are in violent agreement :)

    • Thanks Joe. I think “that really bugs me” is definitely an important one too. I actually think that the two phrases work together – they’re not really in opposition.

      I have heard that entrepreneurial naivety angle before, and there’s probably something to it. So I might be oversimplifying here. But I do think that the uncertainty has to exist, even if the people involved might not be aware of it…

      The typos were egregious – thanks for pointing that out. Not sure if fixing them has brought us closer together or further apart!

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