Why Good Ideas Fail (And How To Help Yours Succeed)

Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash

In 1891, Dr. William Coley had an unusual idea. Inspired by an obscure case, in which a man who had contracted a severe infection was cured of cancer, the young doctor purposely infected a tumor on his patient’s neck with a heavy dose of bacteria. Miraculously, the tumor vanished and the patient remained cancer free even five years later.

You would think that such an accomplishment would be hailed as a breakthrough, but much like Ignaz Semmelweis a half century before, Coley’s work was met with skepticism. In fact, it would take over 100 years, until the first drug was approved in 2011, for immunotherapy to become widely accepted by the medical community.

This is far more common than you would think. We tend to think that if we get an idea right, that others will recognize its worth. That’s hardly ever true. In fact, if your idea is truly new and different, you can expect to encounter stiff resistance. Success or failure depends less on the actual value of an idea than h0w you overcome resistance and scale to impact.

The use of the term paradigm shift has become so common that we scarcely stop to think where it came from. When Thomas Kuhn first introduced the concept in his classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he described more than an event, but a process, which had pervaded the history of science.

It starts with an established model, the kind we learn in school or during initial training for a career. Models become established because, at least on some level, they work. So the more proficient we become at applying a good model the more favorable others view our performance. It’s what allows us to rise through the ranks and become successful.

Yet all models are, in some way, incomplete. Newton’s dynamics, to take just one famous example, work perfectly well for objects we encounter in everyday life and survived more than three centuries with little modification. It was only when scientists started looking closely at objects that were very small and very large that a need for Einstein’s theories arose.

That’s why new paradigms almost always face significant resistance and need to be championed by outsiders or newcomers. Or, as the physicist Max Planck put it “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Pixar founder Ed Catmull once wrote that “early on, all of our movies suck.” The trick, he pointed out, is to go beyond the initial germ of an idea and put in the hard work it takes to get something to go “from suck to not-suck.” He called early ideas “ugly babies,” because they start out, “awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete.”

There’s something romantic about the early stages of an idea, but it’s important to remember that, much like Catmull’s, ugly babies, your idea is never going to be as weak and vulnerable as those early days before you get a chance to work out the inevitable kinks. You need to be careful not to overexpose it or it may die an early death.

So it’s important to overcome the urge to start with a bang and, at least in the beginning, focus on a relatively small circle who can help your ugly baby grow. These should be people you know and trust, or at least have indicated some enthusiasm for the concept. They should also be people who will be willing to point out early flaws.

For example, in his efforts to reform the Pentagon, Colonel John Boyd began every initiative by briefing a group of collaborators called the “Acolytes,” who would help hone and sharpen the ideas. He then moved on to congressional staffers, elected officials and the media. By the time the top brass were aware of what he was doing, he had too much support to ignore.

While your idea is still an “ugly baby, there’s still much that you don’t know and the evidence is rarely clear. In the case of Dr. Coley and immunotherapy, injecting cancer patients with toxins to make them sick was not only counter-intuitive, it often didn’t work. It seemed to help in a few rare cases, but not in most others and Coley couldn’t explain why.

As it turned out, the story was far stranger than anyone could have imagined. Coley and his supporters assumed that injecting toxins jump-started the immune system, but that wasn’t the case. In reality, our immune system is perfectly capable of identifying and attacking cancer cells. In fact, it seems that it kills off potentially cancerous cells all of the time.

Unfortunately, some cancers develop counterattacks. They evolve molecules that bind to specific receptors in our immune system and turn off the immune response. That was the reason why immunotherapy efforts kept failing, until Jim Allison made his breakthrough discovery in 1995.

What Allison figured out, more than a century after Coley’s experiment, was that we can engineer molecules that can “ block the blockers” and cure previously incurable cancers. Even then, it wasn’t an easy path. By the time he came around, many had tried and failed to develop an immune approach to cancer. It would take three years to find a firm willing to fund his work.

The drug based on Allison’s work, called Yervoy, received FDA approval in 2011, 16 years after his initial discovery. Finally, the floodgates opened and the work of countless immunotherapy researchers over more than a century began to bear fruit. Today, there are thousands of active scientists working in the field.

Today, both William Coley and Jim Allison are celebrated scientists. However, while Coley’s work was never widely accepted during his lifetime, Jim Allison won the Nobel Prize for his work. Both had essentially the same idea, that the immune response could be used to fight cancer and save lives.

The truth is that ideas need ecosystems to scale to impact. Coley worked tirelessly to promote the potential of immune approaches to cancer and, after his death in 1936, left a small but dedicated cadre of disciples determined to continue his work. His daughter, Helen, set up the Cancer Research Institute to fund further discovery.

By the time Jim Allison came around there were powerful molecular analysis techniques that allowed he and his colleagues to identify specific molecules within the immune system and understand their function. There were also networks of venture capital that funded firms like the one that supported Allison’s work.

Power in an ecosystem lies not at the top, but emanates from the center and you move to the center by connecting out. That’s what separates great innovators from people who merely have ideas. They understand that no idea can stand on its own. Much like Catmull’s ugly babies, they need to be nourished and protected if they are to grow and make a real impact on the world.

Greg Satell is an international keynote speaker, adviser and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, GregSatell.com and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

Bestselling Author of Cascades and Mapping Innovation, @HBR Contributor, - Learn more at www.GregSatell.com — note: I use Amazon Affiliate links for books.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store