I heard this phrase again recently and it has really stayed with me.
Apparently the quote is attributed to Sir Alec Issigonis, a British car designer who worked at the Morris Minor Company from the age of 18 and went on to design the Mini.
The Mini became one of the most loved cars of all time and Alec was knighted in 1969 to honour his success.I love this phrase and what it says about how to produce truly great design like the Mini.
To be a true innovator and visionary you can’t listen to too many people. You have to be more of a benign dictator and trust your instincts. They say that to come up with a truly disruptive idea you have to be a truly disruptive person and again this is getting at the same point.
When you come up with a new idea people will always put it in their own context of experiences, knowledge, preferences and personality. And you will always end up with a mixture of feedback both positive and negative.
You’ll also come up against people (most people in my experience) who are uncomfortable with change and like to take the world that they find around them and think about how to make incremental improvements to it.
To be a great innovator you have to trust your instincts and have the will to drive your idea forwards no matter what people say about it. That’s how big breakthroughs are made.
Take the example of the Mini – Alec Issigonis was focused on designing a small, simple and economical car. Putting an emphasis on size and fuel efficiency had never been done before and cars were still not affordable for most people. The car included a revolutionary front wheel drive design that allowed 80% of the floor space to be used for passengers and luggage.
The Mini went on to become one of the most popular cars ever produced and influenced a generation of carmakers; indeed it was voted the second most influential car of the 20th century.
The Mini could never have been designed by a committee – something that I think is true of almost all inventions. People would have insisted that the car was a bit bigger, that the front wheel drive design wouldn’t work or that people don’t really care about fuel efficiency. Before he knew it Alex would have ended up with a camel – or is the modern day equivalent a Vauxhall Astra?
You need a clear and uncompromised vision to really do something special. Otherwise you just become a ‘me too’ design that gets lost in the crowded, boring and uninspiring part of the market. As soon as you start to doubt your idea it starts to get compromised and gets sucked closer and closer towards the current way of doing things and away from its groundbreaking potential.
I’m not saying that big ideas always work – in fact they are more likely to fail. Not only do you have to have a great idea but you also have to get your timing right and be capable of turning it into a reality. What I’m saying is that to be a true visionary or innovator you need to have big ideas, the courage to deliver on them and the conviction not to let people talk you down to a safer place.
I don’t think I’m a visionary but my brother Ben definitely is and I think that’s why we work so well together. Ben was the first person in the world to think about scanning email for viruses within the fabric of the internet, a bit like a water company filters water so by the time you turn on your tap you know it’s clean.
At the time we all thought it was an interesting idea but really difficult to get your head around. But Ben was restless and determined to bring this idea to life and it eventually turned into MessageLabs, a business that was sold eight years later for $700M.
Ben is a colourful character and definitely has a crazy side – he has awful dyslexia, was expelled from 5 schools and doesn’t care much for rules or conventions. But out of all this he has the ability to look at the world differently from everyone else and that is where the magic comes from. I’m not sure you can learn it and I’m also not sure you can ever do it as a group or a committee.
Once a new idea has been introduced I think a consensus or customer driven approach has a place in terms of how you allocate resources and evolve the product.
But to come up with the idea in the first place you have to be single minded, to think big and be prepared to put yourself in that uncomfortable position where you have resisted most of the feedback and therefore success or failure falls squarely on your shoulders.
It’s not so much ‘build it and they will come’ as ‘build it and they might come’ – but you’ve got to go out there and build it in the first place and that’s a very hard thing to do.