“I was thinking about my product roadmap and got a bit discouraged. When I looked at what I was doing, I saw how many other people were doing the same thing.”
That’s what one of the coolest, most unique, and talented people I know just said on a Lift Off implementation call. I felt what she was saying — it’s something that comes up for me when the 9 o’Clock Terrors are having their way with me, too.
iPods and French Fries
Had Apple said the same thing, they would have missed the boat with the iPod. Every major electronics manufacturer was in the market and had their own thing, but none of them were the iPod.
I can’t even imagine how many restaurants and food service businesses in America serve French fries. Sure, a restaurateur might consider how serving fries fits with the ethos of the restaurant, but the fact that so many other restaurants serve fries isn’t a good reason to not serve fries.
If we cast a broad gaze, we’d see that everything we might want to do has already been done before. How many authors have there been? How many graphic designers? How many coaches? How many restauranteurs? Teachers? Politicians? Musicians?
Unless you’re Neil Armstrong, someone has already done what you’re doing or want to do. If utter novelty is what you’re after, you’ve already lost.
But I Have an Awesome Idea!
So does someone else.
The history of innovation shows that even if you’re coming up with an entirely new way of thinking, there’s someone else who’s on the cusp of that breakthrough. Isaac Newton or Gottfried Liebniz independently developed calculus, just as Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace did with natural selection. Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the solar system? First proposed by Philolaus 2,000 years before ole’ Nick was born.
So, even if you’re about to change the world with your idea, fretting about it too long means that whoever else is thinking about it has time to do it before you.
Entrepreneurship can be overwhelming. If you follow too closely with what everyone else is doing, it’ll be hard for you to stand out. If you spend all your time developing the perfect Next Best Thing, someone else will beat you to the punch. (Or you’ll come up with a Google Wave, but that’s a conversation for another day.)
Service Trumps Novelty
Rather than thinking about how new your thing is, think about how it solves someone’s problems or meets their desires better than what’s currently available. Does it address the question people keep asking you over and over again? Does it remove that one stupid step that drives everyone crazy? Does it explain an idea in a way that helps someone who’s been struggling to get it?
Doing your best work neither requires you to selfishly do whatever you most want to do nor to be a lifelong martyr in service to other people’s needs. It’s as if we all have some kind of tree that we’re somehow wired to enjoy planting. Your best work uniquely serves you by planting that tree and by the fruit it yields while simultaneously serving others by your doing so.
Countless interviews with people doing their best work bear out this strange phenomenon. Whether it’s soldiers who couldn’t imagine being anything else, nonprofit leaders who have dedicated years to advancing their causes, artists are continually surprised that the work they love to create benefits others, or business leaders who wake up in the morning creating organizations worth being a part of, in each case there’s no either / or perspective about ho’s being served by the work they’re doing. That’s all.
If you’re opening up a restaurant that serves American-style food, you probably better serve fries. If you want to innovate, come up with a unique dipping sauce or a way of preparing them so that they consistently have a crunchy-awesome texture. Better yet, leave the fries alone and come up with a one-of-a-kind dessert since that’s what more people will remember anyway.
By all means, let’s innovate, but let’s stay focused on what matters: solving people’s problems, meeting their needs, and generating value.
But let’s get past starting and on to finishing. The world needs what you create! If you’re stuck or don’t know how to make that happen, grab a copy of Start Finishing. It’s your roadmap to get your best work from idea to done.