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The value of absurdity for innovation (and a story about tacos)

Vegan tacos by Karolina Wiercigroch on 500px.com

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“Great ideas alter the power balance in relationships. That’s why great ideas are initially resisted.” –Hugh Macleod

I have been following the work and writing of designer Tobias van Scheider for quite some time now. If you don’t subscribe to his newsletter and you end up liking this post, you should consider signing up.

Recently I stumbled upon something he published back in October called “Ignore Everybody”, where he argues that when you’re exploring something new – that could potentially fail – one of the best things you can do is ignore everybody. 

And that’s because:

“We have to understand that ideas are by nature very fragile. They’re like little naked babies, unable to protect themselves. If we really believe in a new idea, we have to protect her with great effort. This is difficult, because oftentimes the greatest ideas get killed by the people around us. Executing on a great idea is by nature a lonely path. If everyone would agree with you, the idea is probably not that great anyway.”

I am incredibly interested in how new things get started and how new ideas thrive. Fostering innovation has become a critical component of city building in today’s world. But sometimes I feel as if we’re thinking too top-down, as opposed to bottom-up. 

As Tobias rightly points out in his article, lots of great ideas started as stupid little projects. Who would have thought that a teen sexting app with disappearing messages (Snapchat) would become a company worth many billions of dollars?

It’s for this same reason that Sam Altman of Y Combinator recently wrote that sometimes its better to call your new company a project, rather than a business. When you call it a business you impose all kinds of biases onto it in terms of viable business models, and so on. But when you keep it a “project”, it becomes more acceptable to be experimental.

As an example of all this, I was fascinated to learn this past weekend about a Toronto-based ad agency called OneMethod. Because as part of their agency they have a division called the MethLab, where the goal is to simply experiment with “absurd ideas.”

One of those absurd ideas was a social media campaign slash pop-up taco restaurant – remember, they are an ad agency not restauranteurs. It was so grassroots that they ended up having to sell original art work that happened to come with a “free” taco in order to get around all the legal requirements for serving food. Brilliant.

The idea was so well received that it has grown into a fully fledged restaurant called La Carnita, which today operates across 3 permanent locations and happens to be one of the most popular taco restaurants in Toronto.

But let me ask you this, if they had instead gone out to investors – as an ad agency wanting to get into the taco business – would they have been able to raise the money for their first physical restaurant? I can imagine this being a lot more difficult.

On a larger scale, this is exactly what Google is doing with Alphabet. The company was reorganized and rebranded so that they could continue to work on absurd ideas outside of the Google cash cow. If the idea/project takes off, then it becomes a fully fledged company. If it doesn’t, then it gets shut down and something else is tried.

This is what people and companies are doing today to stay relevant in the innovation race. 

But in some ways it feels like a battle to allow the absurd to survive. That’s why the best approach might be to just ignore everybody. There’s value in the absurd but maybe you’re the only one who sees it right now.

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