Western Union Calls the Telephone, “Idiotic.” What?I am really glad that I came across a blog titled, “Can-Do vs. Can’t-Do Culture,” by Ben Horowitz, posted on re/code, on the first working day of 2014. It has helped me develop my New Year’s Resolution for work. Resolved: Don’t be the voice of “no.”
The blog is about our tendency to ridicule new ideas, especially new technologies, and find every reason why they won’t work, can’t be done or don’t really matter. Horowitz postulates that game-changing innovation often comes from small companies where one or two people really believe in a wild idea. Have the same idea in a big company, and only takes one or two people to dismiss it as too outlandish or unworkable. This isn’t a modern problem. Horowitz has some excellent examples of true innovators being written off as lunatics.
The Telephone is Of Inherently No Use
My favorite example, for obvious reasons, is that of Alexander Graham Bell’s attempt to sell his invention and the associated patents to Western Union. They declined based on a report from an internal committee. “The idea is idiotic on the face of it,” the report reads. I especially enjoyed this line, “Furthermore, why would any person want to use this ungainly and impractical device when he can send a messenger to the telegraph office …” Why indeed? The report concludes, “…since this device is inherently of no use to us. We do not recommend its purchase.” It’s a good thing he didn’t try to pitch them the idea of a wireless device that lets people talk to each other, take pictures, send video and connect to pretty much all of the world’s information.
Don’t Be That Guy
This is a pretty dramatic example of a group of supposedly smart people turning their noses up at a pioneering new concept. I doubt most of us will ever get the opportunity to give the red or green light to anything that significant, but this got me thinking about the smaller, yet still potentially valuable ideas people share all the time. As business owners and managers, we sometimes see our roles as that of protecting people from making mistakes. It’s really easy to think of reasons why something won’t work and most new ideas don’t work, so saying “no” seems sort of humane. The problem is that innovation demands mistakes. It’s messy and inefficient. It’s also the only way to come up with something new, something better.
2014 – The Year of “That Just Might Be Crazy Enough to Work”
I’m going to try to remember Mr. Bell and his nutty ideas when people on my team get inspired by a new thought this year. The consequences of failure are going to have to be pretty dire for me to say anything other than, “Why not give it a shot?” This doesn’t mean saying “yes” to every suggestion, it just means starting from a mindset of “yes.” Some ideas will pan out and others won’t, but what’s there to lose? The result of doing nothing will always be nothing. It’s 2014, let’s not do nothing.
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