If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door.
We’ve all heard that saying before. It’s become quite a popular maxim. It’s a catchy line, and it offers some hope to those who are working on seemingly great ideas. But it also turns out to be really bad advice. We expect a celebration when the product launches or our new work is on display. But this is often not the case. In fact, it is rarely the case. The world’s most common reaction to a new idea isn’t to beat a path to our door. It’s typically to beat down the idea or, perhaps worse, ignore it.
Consider the actual mousetrap. The U.S. Patent Office has issued over forty-four hundred patents for better versions of the mousetrap; of those, only about twenty designs have ever been developed into a commercially viable product. The most successful design, by far, is the spring trap we all envision in our heads. This version was designed in 1899. Despite the roughly four hundred additional mousetrap designs submitted for a new patent every year, no design has yet surpassed the spring trap. Behind all these issued designs is a simple truth: even if you can build a better mousetrap, there is still a lot of work involved in selling the world on your new design.
Beyond the literal mousetrap, history is full of metaphorical mousetraps that were initially rejected. Kodak’s research laboratory invented the first digital camera in 1975, but didn’t pursue it. Kodak didn’t believe that people would be willing to give up the quality produced by film pictures, so they paid no attention as Sony developed a different prototype and stole the future of digital photography out from underneath it. Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, once said, "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." H. M. Warner, founder of movie giant Warner Brothers, disregarded the idea of talking pictures, saying, "Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?" Charles Duell, former head of the U.S. Patent Office, claimed in 1899, "everything that can be invented has been invented." Ironically, that was the same year that the patent for the spring-loaded mousetrap was issued. These are entertaining anecdotes, but they illustrate much more than the fact that intelligent people can be hilariously wrong when judging new ideas. They suggest that perhaps even the smartest among us have a hard time recognizing truly creative ideas. There’s even psychological research supporting the idea that we as humans are biased against new ideas.
Creative ideas, by their very nature, invite judgment. People need to know if the value promised by the new is worth the abandonment of the old. We tend to fear change, and therefore we fear the innovations that call us to change. In organizations especially, we’re told to have fresh ideas and to think outside the box. However, in the rare cases when individuals actually do propose something unique, their idea is often rejected as being too outlandish or impossible. The other problem is that people worry that if they share their creative ideas, then those ideas will be stolen and someone else will take the credit for their innovation. Howard H. Aiken, a renowned innovator and pioneer in computing, held the opposite view. Aiken’s advice for those favoring creative secrecy was, "Don’t worry about people stealing yours ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats." His own experience shaped his belief that people inherently reject, not adopt or steal, creative ideas.
Aiken isn’t alone in this experience or in giving this advice. Eric Ries, a serial entrepreneur and adviser to numerous start-ups, says he often encounters would-be entrepreneurs worried to truly begin their endeavor for fear that potential competitors will steal their ideas and destroy their market share. Ries says, "I have often given entrepreneurs fearful of this issue the following assignment: take one of your ideas (one of your lesser insights, perhaps), and the name of the relevant product manager at an established company who has responsibility for that area, and try to get that company to steal your idea." Ries explains the rationale behind his assignment this way: "The truth is that most managers in most companies are already overwhelmed with good ideas." While we may fear that our great ideas will be stolen, it’s most likely that they will be ignored. In the cases where an idea is considered, it’s still more likely that it will be rejected than stolen.
It’s not enough to merely generate great ideas. Though we live in a world of complex challenges and our organizations need innovative solutions, we also live in a world biased against creative ideas. It’s not enough for an organization to have creative people; it has to develop a culture that doesn’t reject great ideas. It’s not enough for people to learn how to be more creative; they also need to be persistent through the rejection they might face. It’s not enough to have a great idea or a great product, there’s still a lot of selling left to do. We don’t just need more great ideas; we need to spread the great ideas we already have.
—David Burkus is the author of The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas. He is also founder of LDRLB and assistant professor of management at Oral Roberts University.
Reprinted by permission from the publisher, Jossey-Bass, a Wiley brand, from The Myths of Creativity by David Burkus. Copyright (c) 2013 by David Burkus.
[Image: Flickr user Rafael Chacon]