as far as possible, and then some

I’ve been mercilessly threatened by thugs at the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies. They’re the ones in the swank flowery shirts. They insist that if I don’t consider the broadest possible multiplicity of potential outcomes, I may overlook the one I actually want to pursue. And while I couldn’t really hear over the howl of ukuleles, I think they said that if I don’t respect the almighty S in futures, they’ll rub a pineapple against my neck. Not lovingly, either, like Don Ho does to tourists in the front row.
Now, maybe I’ve got a bit of a Honolulu Syndrome thing going on, but I think all that talk of possibilities and pineapples has gone to my head. In a recent client-attended ideation session, all I could feel was the pull of the far-fetched and improbable.

Because we often work to nail down specific principles and specific opportunities for clients, we talk a lot about specific innovations. And though our recommendations are … well … ambitious, we keep them focused on singular goals. Slowly, patterns of creation have begun to emerge and, for my part, I’m now drawn to the composition of Innovation these specifics have revealed (even if, as I write it, it feels bunk). It seems that common threads bind together disparate ideas too tightly for their similarities to be disregarded.
Specifically, I’m compelled by the role of frontiers in an innovation ideation. That an innovation will house something new is a given. As far as invention is concerned, mankind has been at it for a while. New is the new old. It is when an idea passes bravely into a new frontiers that I feel the tingle of innovation. And that the futureboys reminded me that there isn’t just one frontier to breach makes matters much more tingly. [Eliot charted a conceptual frontier in this plopgraph, for instance, but you know, space still counts too.]
So, in the aforementioned client-attended ideation session, we naturally encouraged them the push their thinking outside normal boundaries. With due respect for Godin’s Edgecraft, we picked variables and turned their knobs both high and low, exploring conceptual extremes of maximum and minimum. And as has been the norm lately, the exploration of these isolated specifics unstitched a common thread: while every idea was new in some way — new to us, new to the client, new to their industry, etc. — those ideas that transcended new and actually threatened foray into a new frontier were the most likely to elicit laughter. In what first may have been misinterpreted as negative feedback, it became clear that this was an earnest laughter, too; one filled with uncertainty and interest as though you’d just been told an outrageous tall tale you secretly wanted to believe.
Jim Dator, another futurist badass who I am likely wholly misrepresenting, probably would have interjected thusly:
“Any useful statement about the futures should appear to be ridiculous.”

3 thoughts on “as far as possible, and then some

  1. Matt – if a new idea doesn’t make you just a little nervous, then its not good enough. People tend to play it safe. Really big ideas are therefore hard to bring to fruition without getting diluted in most established companies. The exception is when a company is in crisis and knows that they have to do something amazing to survive.
    Great post.

  2. You know what kills me? Its that its not even necessarily an idea until its executed–you’ve got to have the chance, the opportunity, to realize it fully. Wieden+Kennedy credits much of its creative success to the fact that they let their people finish. That is, they have them conceive something, and then they let them blow it out. No check-ins. None of this “let me run this by you.” Instead, finish it. See what happens. Forget speculation. Which could be frustrating, from what I’ve heard, because at least in the old days, Dan Wieden pretty much killed EVERYTHING in the first rounds.
    What I find frustrating is having a conversation with a client, and then they get nervous about something that seriously amounts to nothing more than slightly heated air and a few soundwaves, and because of that anxiety, they stall. And then gradually, slight alterations are made, doubts are raised, and the outcome is something that is “not wrong.” Problem is, when its “not wrong,” its also “not right.” It’s like a gray-colored steak.
    But I’ve also learned that its up to me and the rest of my compadres to assuage the natural hesitation, because that’s over half of our job. And honestly, bold ideas are free and common. Forging them into something tangible is rare. Agencies whose number one rule is “don’t be wrong” tend to suck. Agencies who aren’t afraid of being wrong, and better yet, who ARE wrong periodically, tend to shine. So I guess the trick is to convince clients that its okay to be wrong…no easy feat. For instance, I think that W+K’s Old Spice campaign is way off base, but, it’ll probably work out okay for the client.
    Mike–don’t you find that many companies in the midst of a crisis frequently deny it? I’ve seen it way too many times. Never underestimate the power of denial. Then again, plenty have made that amazing switch, too.

  3. Brad, Mike, thanks for comments.
    Re: W+K’s (later) philosophy, I think that’s marvelous. It seems all the more motivation for a creative to convince peers and clients with his / her execution of an idea, which, as you’ve noted, is often where the magic lives anyway. And hey, who needs sleep?

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