How acting fast on your rough idea makes it better

Len WilsonArtists, Creativity, Innovation, Leadership, Passion4 Comments

Have you used Google Docs? It’s a browser-based word processing tool. It fills a niche for fast, easy word processing, but the reason its popular isn’t because it’s made by Google (everyone say, Google Plus), but because it has a killer, real time multiple user feature, where different people can work on the same doc at the same time.

I’ve done it at work. Writers use it with agents. My middle school kids use this feature all the time for group homework projects.

The funny thing is, Google Docs shouldn’t even exist. It was originally a bad little word processing app called Writely. Here’s the story, and a few lessons for creativity and innovation.


First: Get the First Draft Down ASAP.

One of the best rules for creativity is to just start. Make something. If you wait, you lose.  Get it online as soon as possible, make it functional, then get feedback, and iterate. You don’t have to be perfect anymore – it’s not “first impressions are the only impressions.”

As Fast Company tells the story of Google Docs,

“The road from Office was just completely littered with bodies,” says Writely inventor, Sam Schillace. “So we were thinking about doing this thing in a browser, with crappy tools that no one has ever seen before, in a competitive area that everyone died when they tried to compete with, why would you do that?”

Schillace believed in the idea and wanted to experiment—but says the key to convincing his colleagues was to get the prototype up and running in a matter of days at almost no cost.

“All of my startups have entailed experiments and trials, and what I’ve learned over the years is you have to make them cheap,” says Schillace. “There’s this activation energy you have to get over, and if this energy is very small, if you say I’m not asking you to invest this month, but just a couple of days so we can try something to see how it feels, you have a very different ability to do that experimentation.”

I love the concept of activation energy, and use it in making new things all the time. I have known several would-be authors who have psychologically cornered themselves over the specter of a rough draft, and lash out like a wounded animal at their own impasse.

The best thing to do is to just make the first one, knowing it will be bad. If you have an idea, don’t wait around – write it down!

Then, Let the Market Iterate.

The old school says, make it perfect before you share it. But culture moves too fast. Now, it’s better to get it to market first, and then iterate. Management guru Jim Collins is famous for his bullets and cannonballs analogy. In this interview with Fortune, he summarizes:

A successful venture or breakthrough product can look in retrospect like a single-step act of pioneering creativity, but that retrospective bias is deceiving. The path to something like, say, the iPod turns out to be a multistep iterative process — first “firing bullets” to gain empirical validation before making a big bet, or firing a cannonball.

The reason? You may be surprised – the crowd may tell you something about it that is new to you. What Jim Collins calls “validation” may just be someone pointing out a benefit you hadn’t considered.

You May Not Find the Reason Until Later.

As Fast Company recounts,

The first prototype of Writely was up in two or three days. [But] it wasn’t until the prototype was built, says Schillace, that they realized, “Because of the server, we can both be working on this document at the same time, that’s actually really useful.”

Did you catch that? Its killer feature, the real-time interaction, wasn’t even caught until after the prototype was built.

Google has nine principles for innovation. One of them is to ship early and often, when possible, and let the market make it better.

Have an idea? Don’t wait – Use your momentum to activate it, now. Even if it’s not perfect, get it online asap, then if it’s worth it, make upgrades and improvements as you go.


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Len Wilson

4 Comments on “How acting fast on your rough idea makes it better”

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