There are few things more appealing than a truly novel idea. A new way of working together, a new product to buy, a new initiative to launch – “new” certainly gets lots of attention, and rightly so.
Thinking about novel ideas reminds me of my time as a Media Planner. The best part about being a Media Planner was brainstorming the next big media idea to promote a client’s product or brand. A new online ad unit that sweeps across the page, an online sweepstakes with a celebrity endorsement, a live webcam in Time Square – something fancy like that. We called these big innovative media buys “custom programs” because we’d work with publishers to build them special for one specific client.
I still remember the feeling of unveiling our latest and greatest ideas to our clients; everyone would get really excited and energetic. For a short time, everything was great and we would all ride the ‘high’ after pitching our newest idea. The problem came one to two weeks later when that high started to fade. After that, it was miserable. Actually executing on a truly new custom program was always extremely difficult. There would be a handful of details left out of the initial proposal, the original launch date was almost always postponed, and occasionally the project would totally fall through.
To me, the manic spike of excitement I saw as a Media Planner is indicative of how our society deals with all new ideas.
In his book The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande talks about the appeal of new business investment opportunities. He refers to the spike of excitement around a new idea as “cocaine brain” and recommends dealing with this irrational exuberance by creating a checklist to rationally evaluate all angles of the deal.
Case in point: shortly after entering into the worst business deal in history, Ted Turner proclaimed that he supported the AOL/Time Warner merger “with as much or more excitement and enthusiasm as I did on that night when I first made love some 40 years ago.”
New ideas are seductively exciting, but that excitement can be a trap.
What about old ideas? It’s easy to dismiss them quickly saying, “Oh yeah, we thought of that already,” but perhaps we don’t give old ideas their due. Certainly old ideas lack the sexy appeal of something truly novel, but some of the world best products have been created as the result of well-executed improvements on old ideas.
The first Apple iPod was released in 2001, four years after digital music players started to become popular. Apple was the fifth or sixth company to create a mass-market digital music player. It certainly wasn’t a new idea, but their superior execution made it a market winner.
Also on the subject of Apple, an argument could be made that the extremely successful iPhone is just a better execution on the original idea for a handheld computer, first conceived in 1993 as the Apple Newton MessagePad.
Choosing the ‘old idea’ takes discipline and focus. It’s definitely not the easy path, but remember this:
Inventors are rewarded with their own Wikipedia page and a footnote in the history books. The people who come along later and execute those inventions perfectly – they’re rewarded with lots and lots of money.