Readers of this blog (there are some out there, right?) have probably figured out by now that I am a sucker for pithy sayings. Yes, I am shallow enough to find meaning in short statements that appear to capture something truthful–others might say short statements that capture something obvious. I’ve organized many of them in my Lessons from a CIA Manager page. But yesterday, while talking to someone preparing material for the Business Innovation Factory, where I am scheduled to tell my story at their Collaboration Innovation Summit in September, I was led to recall one of the most meaningful guiding principles/obvious statements I’ve encountered: There is nothing so weak as an idea whose time has not yet come. This guidance has such wide applicability that it can’t be restricted to the management lessons category.
Now when I decided to write on this topic I googled the phrase to see if I could track down its origins. The phrase “an idea whose time has come” is of course everywhere and appears to have been popularized by the French novelist Victor Hugo, who is credited variously for having written:
All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come.
An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.
Greater than the tread of mighty armies is an idea whose time has come.
Nothing else in the world… not all the armies… is so powerful as an idea whose time has come.
One can resist the invasion of an army but one cannot resist the invasion of ideas.
There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time as come
Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted Victor Hugo on this point when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. The phrase ‘an idea whose time has passed or gone’ is also popular. But I did not find, at least not on the first few pages of the Google search results, any reference to the inherent weakness of an idea whose time has not yet come. My memory, which is I fear becoming increasingly unreliable, tells me I first heard the phrase 20 years ago while listening to a show on the BBC’s Radio 4. (I lived in England in the early 90s and was quite devoted to all the talk shows and introspection celebrations that aired on Radio 4.) The phrase was used by the narrator in a show discussing the experience of British colonial administrators in Africa. As soon as he said it, my brain BOINGed, and I’ve been devoted to the principle ever since. (The entire show was fascinating for the light it shone on the British colonial experience in Africa and its implications. I remember particularly one fellow who as a sergeant (as I remember) ruled a large swath of Ghana during the 1950s. I tried to understand the impact such an experience must have had on the British psyche: to be British meant that you had some right, perhaps even obligation, to guide the rest of the world, and really you needed no other qualification then to be British. The experience of the United Kingdom during the last century does show that a great power can make the transition, more or less elegantly, from superpower to member in good standing of the neighborhood watch, which should give some hope to Americans who are beginning to grapple with this possible future for the US in this century. But I digress….)
There is nothing so weak as an idea whose time has not yet come. If you have the good or bad fortune (you decide) of being able to see, to imagine how things can be different, to make out the fuzzy outline of the new amidst the noise of the current state, then you have experienced the frustration of trying to popularize a concept for which no one else is ready. The interviewer from the Business Innovation Factory reminded me of this when she quoted from a rebuttal that a colleague made almost ten years ago to a piece I had written on the need for intelligence reform in the journal Studies in Intelligence. Let me quote a paragraph that makes his point and illustrates the weakness of premature innovation (the acronym DI refers to the analytic directorate of the CIA):
Claims of dramatic shifts in large systems, whether the environment, a national economy, or a US government agency, always need to be viewed with some skepticism. Systems do not change overnight, especially those affected by some of the more immutable traits of human nature. Medina’s claims about a new environment of information abundance radically altering policymaker needs are overstated. They echo much of the “new economy” thinking that, as good as it sounds, is increasingly unconvincing as it has been put into practice. Not too long ago, The Washington Post ran a series of articles on “The Rise and Fall of Michael Saylor,” the Microstrategy chief who became a multi-billionaire, then watched his wealth and his company collapse after bad accounting practices took the luster off his vision of how to handle the new environment of information abundance.4 The series reminds us that untested theories, especially when presented in glowing terms to excite the imagination of investors and managers, often promise more than can be delivered and more than, in practice, anyone wants.5 The DI, like many corporations, already has a good and useful product. When consultants and others come to us saying that everything has changed and so must we, the proper response before investing significant resources ought to be “prove it.”
Well I can’t really disagree with anything the author wrote many years ago. Yet I know in my heart (and my brain) that if organizations wait for the need for change to be obvious, it becomes White Rabbit time–too late. It is a fact that many ideas for how to do the new are wrong. But it is also a fact that ALL existing ideas for how to do things, whatever the field, however small or complex, are eventually replaced by a better way of doing things. So I guess it all comes down to timing.
This then is one of the many dilemmas of innovators. Innovators have to balance the “earliness” of their ideas against their “effectiveness”. Too early and you might as well be speaking to yourself. Too late and you have sacrificed your effectiveness and failed your group, organization, mission. Decisionmakers in organizations must have a process to harvest ideas so that they can incubate, be protected from the perils of premature delivery, and thus eventually reach their maturity–their time of acceptance. Innovators, who too often are blinded tactically by falling in love with their ideas, need to have a long-term approach to the marketing of their concepts. It is just immature to expect widespread acceptance of your new ideas or to give up at the first opposition.
So let me turn again to Victor Hugo for an appropriate last word: “Each man should frame life so that at some future hour fact and his dreaming meet.”