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Multiple paths to a quick yes

I have heard a number of people describe this blog as covering all that is new. That wasn’t my explicit goal when I started writing it. My goal was simply to focus on cities and all the wonderful things that shape them. But it turns that new ideas form a big part of that and that I am very interested in new ideas. Change is what moves the world forward.

Of course, there is no shortage of new ideas. We all have brilliant ideas. Maybe you’re looking at Toronto’s public garbage bins right now and thinking to yourself, “You know what, I have some terrific ideas for how these could be greatly improved.” And chances are, your ideas are good ones. The problem, however, is that ideas are fleeting. The real challenge is bringing them to fruition before they die.

So here are a few thoughts that came to mind this morning:

  • There is a difference between incremental improvements and directional/fundamental change. Generally speaking, we tend to be naturally better at ideas related to the former than the latter. When we look at a Toronto garbage bin on the street and see it overflowing with rubbish and see all its side panels swung open, we intuitively see the problems. But it is less common to think about, oh I don’t know, subterranean garbage networks for moving refuse around or networked robots that come out at night and tidy our streets with purple brooms. This is also why when we come up with something new like a horseless carriage or an iPhone, we often name them after the thing we already know and are familiar with, even though it probably undersells how meaningful the change is. It helps our minds make the leap.
  • Many organizations have separate decision making processes that depend on the above. Amazon, for example, likes to ensure that incremental improvements have “multiple paths to yes” within the company. Again, these are the more intuitive kind of changes and so you don’t want some brilliant, yet fragile, idea to get killed by some naysayer along the way. You want as many of them being implemented as possible. On the other hand, ideas that might change the direction of the company are typically slowed down and carefully deliberated. This is a common split. “Major decisions” go up to some greater governance body; whereas all other day-to-day decisions just get made on the fly by those “in the field”. This is one way to keep things moving quickly.
  • On a related note, venture capitalist Fred Wilson wrote today about the virtues of small and flat partnerships when it comes to early-stage investing (but I don’t think the lesson only applies to this sector). In his view, the biggest venture winners — at least when it comes to early-stage companies — often come from the most “controversial and out there” ideas. And to make these sorts of bets it is helpful to have a small and flat team with a lot of trust. I found this particular insight really interesting because it implies that when you have the opposite — big and hierarchical organizations — you naturally start to lose your ability to experiment with non-consensus ideas. And so what you’re likely left with is just the intuitive and incremental stuff.
  • Recently, we also spoke about the argument that generations view change differently. Young people are often more open to new ideas, at least partially because they view it as a way for them to make their mark on the world. Older generations, on the other hand, often view change as a threat to their current position in the world. None of this is universally true, but think about how this often plays out with new housing. Young people view housing supply as a way for them to buy or rent something new and form their own household. Whereas already established households can view it as a threat to their community and their existing way of life.

These are a broad set of thoughts. But if there are any lessons to extract from these bullet points it is perhaps these: One, consider the kind of decision that needs to be made. Is it something incremental and intuitive? Is it an obviously sound infill housing project? Because if so, you want multiple paths to a quick yes. And two, consider who gets a say and who controls the decision. Because the wrong group dynamic can kill even the best new ideas.

2 Comments

  1. I’m not sure your young vs. old model really works in the developer community. I have a radical idea for a new type of building – a massive arch building that straddles a major river (1500′ wide on the inside at grade) and I’m 64. More significantly for this discussion, when I present the idea – with backup renderings, research and site information – it’s the young people who ask about my background, degrees, and other “qualifiers” that will supposedly make me more legitimate in their minds, while the older professionals mostly want to know about the building, the engineering, the financials (if they’re investor types), the number of residents (19,100) etc.
    Young people today seem fearful of stepping out of line, that they would be politically or socially judged, marginalized, or even persecuted (maybe even prosecuted) for saying something that isn’t acceptable within their social set. It constrains them and limits their imaginations when they should be challenging the system the most.
    These are generalities, of course, and the more positive reception among the older set might just reflect the confidence that comes from being established in their careers, but I was young once too, and I don’t remember quite this level of fear of being judged.

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  2. doug pollard

    Brandon At one point a friend and I started a list of “things that shaped cities” We never got it finished and never will since everything shapes cities and therefore you gave yourself license to talk about everything

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