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How To Stick With It When Your Ideas Are Ahead Of Their Time

I typed this out from my Shangri-La Hotel room in downtown Sydney, overlooking the harbor and the city’s famous opera house. Somewhere above the opera house spires, a new era arrived: The first private spacecraft docked at the International Space Station. While I was dozing on my flight over the Pacific, the team at SpaceX was surely wide awake, watching their controls as they made history.

To most of us hearing about this story now—the replacement of parts of NASA with private-sector space-launch companies—the news may come as inevitable. But eight years ago I got a chance to interview Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, and I can assure you that while he saw this future coming, he was in the minority.

SpaceX’s docking is perhaps the most public of examples of the fundamental challenge of innovation. The innovator has a vision for the future; that vision is inconsistent with current reality; and so the innovator must find the passion or courage or drive or whatever it is to pursue his/her vision despite the crowds of non-believers saying "it won’t happen."

This ability to believe in your vision despite current reality is fundamental. You cannot intentionally change the world without it.

In my most recent book, Outthink the Competition, I dedicate a couple of chapters to this challenge. Here are three tips I’ve gleaned from speaking to people like Musk that can help you, today, hold on passionately to your dream.

1) Seek simple logic. Usually when an innovator sees the world is going to change, the logic behind the change is obvious. When I asked Musk why he thought SpaceX had a future, he said that it was because a world in which anyone can launch things into space is a more exciting future than a world in which only the government can. The world changes all the time. It’s easy to see it is going to happen. What distinguishes innovators from the rest of us is not that they see farther into the future; it’s that they take action. While "experts" bring up complicated logic to explain why things will not unfold as the innovator thinks, the innovator just starts moving. Jeff Bezos saw that the Internet was going to change retail, so he left his job at the high-tech investment bank D.E. Shaw, and started selling books online. Today produces nearly $50 billion in revenue. Now Bezos sees a new shift about to happen—cloud computing. He supposedly predicted at a recent shareholder meeting that Amazon’s revenue from cloud computing would become as big as their core retail revenue! So don’t over think...outthink. When your logic is complicated it means you don’t understand. Think until your logic becomes simple, then act.

2) Believe. Remember that an innovative vision is usually inconsistent with prevailing logic and beliefs (otherwise it is probably not that innovative). It may be inconsistent with practices and rules. The scratch plow could not transform ancient human hunters into agricultural societies until humans cultivated oxen to pull the plow. Your innovation will depend on lots of things changing. Specifically it requires assembling a puzzle composed of three components: what you can directly control, what you can only indirectly influence, and what is completely out of your control. Great innovators do all they can to put the first two in place and trust patiently that the last will come to be. This is why simple logic is so important. You often hear innovators say, "It just makes sense." This gives them the trust that even things that are outside of their control will eventually be brought into alignment. Steve Jobs, for example, knew it just made sense for record labels to distribute content digitally, so the iPod and iTunes became the natural net to capture this future.

3) Remember. Albert Einstein once said, "It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer." Great innovators stay with their visions longer while others get distracted or disillusioned. My practice of sitting down for 10 minutes every day to review my vision has proven enormously helpful to me. Visionary CEOs who I know repeat their vision many times a day, at meetings, at speeches. This keeps the vision alive for them and their organization.

I have a tool that I use in my workshop to help people create their compelling vision and "stay with [the vision] longer," to paraphrase Einstein. It suggests that your vision should include at least three elements: what you think will change in the environment that you cannot control (e.g., space travel will become more common), how other players will change (e.g., the government will privatize part of NASA), and what you want to be in that future (e.g., the first private launch company to contract to the U.S. government). You can download my form by looking at "challenge definition form" here.

After I wrote this post, I headed downstairs to work with a group of 65 technology executives, helping them come up with breakthrough ideas for using customer service as a competitive differentiator. We started, as you can guess, with envisioning their ideal future. Why not take 10 minutes to do the same? Ask yourself:

1) In five years, what will be going on in the environment that I should be planning for?

2) What will other players be doing?

3) What do I want to be/achieve in that future?

[Image: Flickr user R Kurtz]