The Mad Ones

When geek culture thrives, innovation happens

There is a cartoon I saw several years back often used as an allegory of the travails of sales. It applies equally well however to anyone that has tried to present a novel solution to a problem.

This is often the constraint large enterprises face when trying to innovate. They want to foster a culture that spawns the next breakout products. Yet new ideas often get squashed under the weight of bureaucracy and politics and existing workloads that stifle creativity.

To get around corporate roadblocks, many companies have created outside hubs to unleash pent up innovation. They launched Digital Factories or Innovation Centres to bring fresh ideas into the organization, only to run into “it will never work here” or “not on my watch”.

What passes for innovation at most companies is the equivalent of a new flavor of toothpaste in updated packaging. Small iterations guided by marketers, focus groups, and bean counters. In other words, the type of new thinking that does not rock the boat or step on anyone’s toes.

I generally dedicate this blog for topics related to technology transformation as opposed to innovation. That is because without a radical change in thinking, working styles, and culture, the ingredients needed for innovation will never take root.

That being said, companies should weave in space for bold thinking in their transformation journey. Some formalize this through programs like Google’s “20% time”. But I think it starts with recognizing, supporting, and funding the people that have outlandish ideas and allowing “geek culture” to thrive in the more reserved business culture, and not as a separate entity!

As I think about corporate innovation, I recall an essay I wrote back in 2012. While 3D printing has yet to become an everyday household appliance, the larger point about how ideas go from crazy to revolutionary to ingrained should give us pause in how we foster innovation.

Technology was a formative part of my upbringing, which saw the dawn of boxy computers in the home to the rise of supercomputers in our pockets. In that time, I was fortunate to have access to computers at an early age when it was still not common. I have held onto that sense of joy and wonder of what those gray boxy computers could do ever since.

It’s funny how often we take for granted in the present the things we dismissed in the past. We do not think twice about the laptops we work on, the Internet that informs us, or the jets and cars that take us places. When these marvelous things first came into being, it was not so obvious that they would be so disruptive to the market and ingrained into our standard of living.

When you read about the early days of personal computers, it is often the story of tinkerers and hobbyists. Jobs and Wozniak built clunky, rudimentary devices in wooden cases out of a garage. Gates spent countless hours tooling around a mainframe terminal at his school. The advent of the World Wide Web created a whole new slew of tinkerers passionate about new technologies and their possibilities.

These are the geeks and the outcasts and the nerds. They did not care what the naysayers and doubters had to say. It did not matter that they were dismissively called “dreamers”. For them, they did not think they were wasting their time. They were pursuing something they loved. It was the process of investigating and probing and discovering that mattered most.

That is why stories that dismiss some innovative, trailblazing technology do not matter. While it is disappointing that some technologists that profess to be about disruption and innovation would be so critical, in the end the tinkerers and hobbyists are going to get the last laugh. It is often the doubters that turn out to be wrong.

It is easy to miss the disruptive trend when it is first happening. Because it is the nerds that are leading the charge, no one pays it any mind. There is the initial hype, but it usually fades fast because there is nothing for the mainstream to latch onto. They need to see, hear, and touch something. Thus it is hard for non-geeks to make the mental leap in how a novel technology could be important for their everyday lives. People are looking for usefulness and applicability when that does not exist in the early days of new technologies.

Look at the array of technologies on the proverbial cutting edge today. The reality is that things like blockchain and VR and 3D printing are not for everyone right now. In fact, only the most hardcore techie could really get into those things or have the time, money and patience to work through the kinks and obstacles. Very few people can fathom why one would want to bother in the first place.

Take 3D printing for example. It is slow and messy and prohibitively expensive, and in the end you get useless plastic trinkets. But people said the same thing when the first dot matrix printers came on the market. They were clunky and slow and expensive and broke down all the time. Besides, who would want to print stuff at home anyway other than computer nerds? Now practically every home has a color printer capable of producing high-quality photos, greeting cards, spreadsheets, novels, and the kid’s homework.

There are plenty of things to be skeptical about, but never underestimate what the geeks are working on. When you get past the hype cycles of “next big thing” and look deeper, you find that all that tinkering and experimenting is leading to something that is pretty remarkable and world changing. It might be hard to see at first, but with a little imagination and time, those early experiments generally lead to entirely new industries and to the next generation of great companies pushing the edge of what’s possible.

One of my favorite authors, Jack Kerouac, wrote the following in On the Road:

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”

I will never doubt the mad ones, the ones tinkering and geeking out on technology, dreaming the big dreams, not willing to accept the limits or the doubts, never interested in the commonplace, but always digging and poking and building to make something bigger than even they can imagine. Those are my people, the mad ones that will change the world.

Who are the mad ones you know in your life and work? Are there wild ideas that you would like to try if you could convince leadership to take the leap?

How much steel armor can you wear and still be able to swim?

This may be important knowledge for your next career move…

We help IT leaders in enterprises solve the cultural challenges involved in digital transformation and move towards a community based culture that delivers innovation and customer value faster. Learn more about our work here.

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