Why is consensus around new ideas seen as a desirable thing?
Because it isn’t. It’s like kryptonite.
New things are by definition disruptive. They have to challenge the status quo: to be heretical. So surely what we should be looking for is healthy controversy rather than consensus? After all, we don’t all agree on whether Froot Loops or Lux are great products, whether Hitler was a great leader or religion has any validity in the 21st century – and these have all been around for a while – so why on earth do we strive for agreement on something new?
Why? Because challenging the status quo is seen as a neurological threat. And even though we develop new ideas in order to create change and promote growth – all the stuff of progress that distinguishes humans as a species – we are biologically hardwired to resist it. Change makes us feel uncertain, which creates stress. On the other hand, consensus makes us feel safe, warm and fuzzy, which is why Roberto Cialdini identified it as one of the 6 key influence patterns that drive our behaviour…
Pity it also neutralises the idea.
Which suffocates innovation, and hammers the bottom line.
Because while truly innovative ideas – ideas that change ‘the way things are done’ like Facebook and iPhones and screw-top wine bottles – make up a mere 14% of new business launches, they account for a whopping 61% of profits. And this doesn’t take into account the effects of positive press coverage, customer loyalty, and productivity from increased employee engagement.
The irony is that we adapt to the great new ideas so quickly that we forget how controversial they originally were. The Annie Leibovitz shot of the naked and pregnant Demi Moore that caused such outrage is now mainstream billboard fodder, while answering machines and mobile phones – which I can remember causing huge dinner party arguments when they were launched – are now ubiquitous.
The vast majority of people can only evaluate what they have already experienced, which by definition excludes a new idea. Which is why in the movie Inception, the focus is on the structure and integrity of the idea. For the idea to act as a virus, for it to take root and to spread and become ubiquitous, it has to have integrity – it has to be both very clean and simple, and it has to be ecological. It has to be sympathetic to its environment in order to disrupt it without crisis.
So the trick is not so much to be popular, but to have internal and ecological integrity. Because new ideas are not about creating certainty and security, they are about creating disruption – disruption that spreads until it becomes the new norm. And as such, they carry inherent risk as well as almost inevitable unpopularity. They might not work. They might even need to fail in order to give birth to a better idea. But when they do work, the rewards can be be exponential. When they do work, it’s like winning the lottery.
So if you are looking for a way to judge an idea, don’t waste time on the popularity vote, look for its integrity:
- Is it simple?
- Is it single-minded in its focus?
- Does it stand on its own or require the stars to align and the seas to part for it to work?
- What assumptions are in play, and are they valid?
- Does it have its own logic?
- Does it have a whiff of post-rationalised inevitability?
- Does it make things easier and simpler and better?
Will it work?
Because whether or not people like it when they first hear it, if it works, they will in the end. Just look at the telephone, the car, the Beatles, the personal computer, the internet, and the iPhone…