Monday, March 17, 2014

The Challenge of Distilling Ideas

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I had an interesting debate on Twitter last week with Jeffrey Cufaude. It started with me tweeting this paraphrased snippet from one of the Corner Office columns I had just read in The New York Times.

Cufaude took issue with it, calling it ridiculous, and stating (probably correctly) that innovation can happen with any number of people in the room. The important variables are the mix of perspectives and the ground rules for the discussion.

I'm not writing about it here to reignite that debate. Rather, in reflecting on the experience, I'm struck by how difficult it can be to distill ideas down to something that is both useful and true to their original intent.

Going back to the original article, I believe the executive was talking more about decision-making and execution. Both are part of successful innovation, but both also exist apart from it. And those are the elements that spoke more powerfully to me when I read the article.

Here's the entire section:

Q. You were a co-founder of Kayak nine years ago. What’s unusual about the culture?

A. We’re a little bit reckless in our decision-making — not with the business, but the point is that we try things. We give even junior people scary amounts of power to come up with ideas and implement them. We had an intern last summer who, on his very first day at Kayak, came up with an idea, wrote the code and released it. It may or may not have been successful, but it almost doesn’t matter, because it showed that we value speed, and we value testing ideas, not talking about them.

It’s all about fast iteration. When you push down decisions, and you don’t require people to write up plans and do designs by consensus, enormous amounts of work just disappear. We cut out all the middle layers and you let the designers talk to the customers. Otherwise, something gets lost in translation with a lot of layers.

Q. What else?

A. We’re known for having very small meetings, usually three people. There’s a little clicker for counting people that hangs on the main conference room door. The reason it’s there is to send a message to people that I care about this issue. If there’s a bunch of people in the room, I’ll stick my head in and say, “It takes 10 of you to decide this? There aren’t three of you smart enough to do this?”

I just hate design by consensus. No innovation happens with 10 people in a room. It’s very easy to be a critic and say why something won’t work. I don’t want that because new ideas are like these little precious things that can die very easily. Two or three people will nurture it, and make it stronger, give it a chance to see life.

One of his statements hangs its hat on the innovation concept and, like most good sound bites, it is short, provocative and memorable.

No innovation happens with 10 people in the room.

So when looking for a way to distill the idea down into 140 characters or less, I took the shortcut offered--even though it did not accurately convey the idea I was trying to embrace.

The better tweet might have been, "Decisions don't get made with 10 people in the room," but even that's not true. Maybe, "Ten people won't decide and move as quickly as two or three," is closer to the original concept, but it doesn't have nearly the punch either of the other two statements have.

So what? Why all this analysis over one silly tweet?

Well, as I said earlier, I think this experience illustrates the challenge many leaders face in trying to communicate complex ideas. Time and attention often preclude the sharing of a reasoned and thoughtful analysis, and shortcuts and sound bites are often the result.

Crafting those communications, however, can be just as challenging as the deeper analysis from which they spring. So if you're going to use a shortcut to convey your idea, you'd better take the time that is necessary to find the right one.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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