Before arguing the seemingly outrageous claim that success is the result of stupid ideas, it’s important to first define what is meant by ‘success’ and what is meant by ‘stupid ideas’.
In the context of Canadian Small Business Women and its blog, success can be defined as the creation of an enduringly profitable business. A business that earns more money than it spends, while simultaneously creating more value for its stakeholders than it takes from them. This is the only definition of ‘success’ that this article is concerned with.
When it comes to what this article means when it says ‘stupid ideas’, commonly used idioms or expressions from the English language (since, alas, it is the only language I know) offer some guidance:
When your father says “I need a [insert undesirable thing] like I need a hole in the head” he means that the thing in question is as useless, unappealing or undesirable as having a hole in his head would be. This turn of phrase suggests that ‘a hole in the head’ is a stupid idea.
When your mother reminded you of the “stranger danger” rule when you were heading out into the world as a not-quite-fully-grown person, she wanted to ingrain in your conscious mind that engaging with strangers is unsafe and therefore a stupid idea.
When your friend describes finding out her recent ex-boyfriend is already dating someone new as “salt on an open wound” you know she means that this news caused her pain in addition to what she was already feeling from the breakup itself. ‘Salt on an open wound’ is understood here as undesirable and therefore another stupid idea.
But are these actually, inherently, stupid ideas? In a different content, could these not actually be really good ideas? Do certain life-saving procedures not require surgeons to drill holes in a patient’s head? Are AirBnB, Uber, Lyft, Kijiji, eBay and other such game-changing enterprises not simply platforms that bring strangers together to exchange accommodations, transportations and goods? Does salt on an open wound – as painful as it might be – not also offer having wound cleaning and healing benefits?
The answer to all of these rhetorical questions is, of course, yes(!) In a different context, a stupid idea can suddenly be a brilliantly useful one. Which begs the question: is there truly such a thing a stupid idea?
Similar to the saying (attributed primarily to Mark Twain) that “humor is simply tragedy plus time” perhaps success can be thought of simply as stupid ideas + time. Essentially what this means is that the usefulness and therefore quality of an idea depends heavily on contextual factors. Which are, over time (more now than ever before), in constant flux.
Unfortunately, when we emotional beings are under pressure to come up with useful ideas (such as in our ever-changing professional lives) we consistently favour our immediate, short-term context disproportionately more than our future, long-term context. We favour what is acceptable now over what might be incredibly useful and therefore favourable later (for potentially longer.)
All too often, when a brave soul proposes an idea that does not suit the immediate, short-term context (or, even more commonly, the knowledge accumulated from context of years past) it is dismissed without proper consideration. Of course, not every ‘stupid idea’ is not automatically a winning idea. The dismissiveness is a problem because they are all rejected before the losers can be filtered out from (or developed into) the winners. In a phrase, we tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater. And what’s left is the same old safe-right-now ideas, recycled over and over without adding any new value.
These safe-right-now ideas (one that do little to challenge current conventions and, thus, can be easily agreed upon and acted on), cannot possibly be the path to success. If an idea is easily agreed upon and acted on, chances are it has already been done, in some way, and is therefore limited in its usefulness. Even if the safe idea offers some incremental value, the operators of such a service or product will be hard pressed to sustain themselves beyond the short-term. Not only does this go against this article’s definition of success, a stunted runway means a business will not have the time necessary to develop sophisticated systems and deep expertise – the kind that result in paradigm shifts and first-to-market value capture.
Bottom line? Incremental value – the best possible outcome of current-context “good” ideas – will not lead to the definition of ‘success’ presented above.
Instead, ‘stupid ideas’ – those that seem at odds with the current context – offer ambitious entrepreneurs and business leaders much more potential for sustained success.
Industry-leading recruitment and HR consulting firm, Cannabis at Work, out of Edmonton, Alberta, is a real-life example of how the strategic consideration and pursuit of a ‘stupid idea’ can lead to sustained success.
In the summer of 2016, Alison McMahon found herself winding down her first start-up and in search of a new venture just as the cannabis industry began budding south of the border. After familiarizing herself with the growing body of research on medicinal cannabis use, Alison began to see the writing on the wall: wide-spread cannabis legalization was just around the corner.
Considering how she might leverage her HR expertise, Alison identified an opportunity to educate and advise employers on how to accommodate individuals who are being treated with cannabis for a medical condition when enforcing safety standards (something that often requires employees to take – and pass – a drug test.)
Alison decided on the stupid idea of speaking out publicly on this stigmatized and politically-charged issue to help organizations navigate this new dynamic in spite of the fact that the sale and consumption of cannabis was not yet legalized in Canada (and most US states.)
Looking back at those early days, she describes the “push back” she experienced from people close to her who asked, incredulously, “Why are you talking about this?” “Why are you doing this?” One particular anecdote stands out in Alison’s memory:
“I remember my husband at the time, John, telling me that he had told his dad what I was up to and his dad response was literally “No! Why is she doing that? Why does she feel the need to take her business in that direction and talk about weed? It’s not worth it!” They were essentially afraid for me – I think – that I was going to talk about something or do something [I’d regret.] That somehow it would end badly for me.”
Going against the context (stigma) at the time, Alison launched Cannabis at Work, held six different conferences on cannabis in the workplace, in four different cities and countless private education sessions with all types of organizations over the next couple years.
This enormous volume of education work in affected industries allowed Cannabis at Work to build its brand, credibility and relationships within the growing cannabis sector as well. Today, less than five years later, it is an industry-leading team of people, working across Canada and international markets, helping organizations within the cannabis industry build high-performing teams through recruitment and other HR consulting services.
And it all started with (what seemed like) a stupid idea.
It’s important to note that even if the road to success is paved with stupid ideas, it doesn’t make persisting down that bumpy road any less challenging – and scary. Alison fully admits she had her own fears about potentially committing “career suicide” by speaking publicly on what was (and still in many ways is) a controversial subject. She explains that, before she got to the point of publishing any of her work on the subject, she went through her own “risk assessment” many times over. What she decided for herself – and what she would tell other ambitious entrepreneurs – is that “it comes down to informed risk.”
Not only does Alison offer sound advice to entrepreneurs and business leaders who face fear and doubt regarding a ‘stupid idea’ they feel could be a very brilliant one, she reinforces the fact that if your apparently good idea is considered so because it is devoid of risk (i.e. it is not as much a good idea as it is a safe idea) then it probably doesn’t carry much business value. Alison explains:
“I never got to a point where there was no risk involved in moving forward [otherwise] it wouldn’t be a business anymore. But I trusted my instincts…I could look ahead at the landscape and there was momentum around medical cannabis. There were a few states that had already moved through legalization of medical cannabis. It was fall 2015 when Trudeau was getting elected and he was talking about cannabis as part of his platform. So there were enough indicators around me that solidified my belief that there would be continued momentum forward on cannabis legalization across North America. And that it would be a very relevant conversation.”
So, if you’ve been sitting on a ‘stupid idea’ (current context) for a while now, here are a few questions you can ask yourself to help you move forward (or move on):
- What strong indicators or evidence exist that suggest this is only a stupid idea now, and perhaps for not much longer?
- What are the primary causes for my fears and doubts: my own internal wranglings or external influences who (perhaps because they care about me) are projecting their own less-informed fears and doubts onto me?
- What groups of people will be the primary stakeholders in this evolving near-future context? How large are they? How urgent will their needs be? How long will it take to deliver services that will meet their needs?
- Is the expected volume of work large enough to sustain a sole-proprietorship or small team for years to come?
- What expertise might this sole-proprietor or team of professionals develop along the way that could solidify its ability to create value for this community – and its leadership position – over the long-term?
Perhaps the most important question that ambitious entrepreneurs and business leaders should ask themselves is “Am I interested in this work? Does it excite me?”
How she personally felt about the work was an equally important consideration for Alison when she pushed through her early-day doubts and decided to take the plunge:
“I think the other piece that was alive and well for me was that nobody else was really digging into the workplace case law and presenting that back to the HR and safety community in ways that informed that conversation, that created roadmaps for organizations around new things they needed to consider. That really was exciting to the entrepreneurial side of me [that wants to] build and create. So, I was very like engaged and motivated…[Today] I’ve built a business that I love, and that I’m excited about working on every day, in an industry that I love, that gives me the pleasure to be able to employ people I really enjoy working with and also to live a lifestyle that I love.”
If you say similar things about the ‘stupid idea’ that you’ve been sitting on – and find favourable answers to the first list of questions – then you have all the reason and evidence you need to get it off the ground.
However, if perhaps you’ve been operating your business for a while and find yourself stuck recycling the same safe-for-now ideas year over year – I can help break through that thinking pattern.
As a human-centered strategist, I collaborate with Canadian businesses to systematically deconstruct problems, uncover new meaning and opportunities. If you’re in need of a fresh approach to persistent industry or organizational challenges or are having trouble structuring your unconventional idea into a functioning business model I’d be happy to help.
Stephanie Ruth Grimbly is a ‘human-centered strategist’ and creative problem-solver. She combines traditional business practices with emerging innovation disciplines to reveal insights about customer preferences and develop stand-out strategies for Canadian businesses.