A few years ago, I did a daily business piece for Boise State Public Radio called “Idaho Business Matters.” The original idea was to ask about faculty members’ research and then talk about it on the radio — what we could learn from the findings and how it would be useful for business.
The first person I went to interview stopped me cold.
“I couldn’t possibly tell you what I’m working on. You might take my idea.”
I remembered that comment when I began reading “Originals: How Non-comformists Move the World,” by University of Pennsylvania professor Adam Grant. Early in the book, he tells a captivating story about an invention that Steve Jobs and others were desperate to be part of — as investors, as users, as promoters. But the inventor didn’t want to share much about this technology that he claimed would revolutionize the way people moved. Instead, he worked in secret developing his groundbreaking product.
When the product hit the market place, it didn’t change the world. Can you guess what it was? Segway, those two foot scooters that move forward and backward with the shift of your weight. Grant argues that inventor Dean Kamen made a big mistake not getting wider feedback on the product and concept during development. By assuming his strength as an inventor would carry the product to success, he chose to keep it under wraps rather than get any feedback.
My reaction to the professor’s secrecy and the Segway story was similar. Creativity is usually the result of ideas bumping into each other, from different fields or people, and often those ideas become better when they are challenged, massaged, and revised. If this is a way to make an idea stronger or more relevant, why not be open and talk about it, at least with trusted colleagues?
To imagine that we can, in isolation, come up with something that is life changing smacks of hubris at a minimum. If you’re able to come up with one great idea, couldn’t you come up with another? Now I realize that some ideas do and need to remain quiet for legal reasons, but for most of us, why not test ideas with others?
Granted, sometimes secrecy makes sense. I learned that the hard way long ago with a new program that a colleague and I intended to develop for the university.
It was one that made sense, we had the capacity to do it, experts encouraged us to go forward, but it faced pushback inside the university. While we were working through that, I mentioned the idea to a colleague at another university and, boom, a year later, as our idea had melted, I noticed that his university started a program that sounded very similar to the one I’d told him we were thinking of. But then, since BSU was unable to pull it off, I was glad that someone was able to use the idea elsewhere.
The question, then, is when to be open and when to hold close to the vest. I’d argue that for most of us, allowing our ideas some air, some challenge, and much revision could help them take flight.