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In 1974 a young Kodak engineer named Steven Sasson was assigned a seemingly low-stakes task: to see if there was any practical use for a recent invention capable of turning light into data. He built a device that could capture images and digitally display them on a screen and eagerly presented it to his bosses. But he made a tactical blunder: He billed the new technology as “filmless photography.” That positioning clashed with the very raison d’être of his audience—executives whose careers depended on the sale and processing of film—all but guaranteeing a tepid response. Instead of seizing an advantage in the consumer market, Kodak held off for nearly two decades, by which time several competitors were contesting the market space.
Why did Sasson make such a deeply flawed pitch? He was carried away by enthusiasm for his invention. He later said, “It never occurred to me that I was at odds with the fundamental mission of the company for the last 100 years.”
Innovators like Sasson can be their own worst enemies, derailed by personal traits, such as confidence and optimism, that are essential to creativity but can be toxic when taken to an extreme, and by emotions such as fear, doubt, regret, and frustration, which are typical when trying something new but can too easily stall or destroy an effort.
Having interviewed and studied hundreds of successful and unsuccessful innovators, we’ve learned that many don’t appreciate, and therefore struggle to manage, psychological hurdles like these. And although practical advice abounds on how to innovate, from design thinking to lean start-up and sprint methodologies, in-depth guidance on conquering the mental challenges involved is harder to find.
In what follows, we draw on published interviews, videos, and speeches to describe the obstacles encountered by some high-profile entrepreneurs and illuminate the paths by which they moved forward.
The Fear of Getting Started
Fear can strike at any time, but it may be particularly pronounced as you contemplate crossing the threshold from thinking to doing. Pursuing your idea almost certainly involves risk—to your savings, your reputation, your career. Jeff Bezos has recalled telling his manager at the hedge fund D.E. Shaw about his notion to sell books online. “I think it would be a better idea for somebody who didn’t already have a good job,” his boss replied. For Bezos, that comment distilled the dilemma: Should he jeopardize his current comfort, status, and security for the uncertain prospect of future gains? When facing similar doubts, the following tactics can help.
Consult your future self.
People are hardwired to avoid risky choices by magnifying the negative consequences that might ensue. An especially potent magnifier is what’s called future regret: We imagine the self-recrimination we’ll feel if our venture turns out badly. The desire to avoid that feeling encourages conservatism—but you can counteract it. Instead of focusing on the pain that would accompany a failed effort, imagine how you’ll feel years hence if you play it safe and shelve your idea.
Bezos struggled for a couple of days before finding a productive way to frame his decision. He pictured himself as an old man reflecting on his life. “Would I regret leaving this company?” he asked himself. “I thought, When I’m 80, I’m not going to think about that; I’m not even going to remember it. But…I know for a fact, I have this idea, and if I don’t try, I’m going to regret [it]. As soon as I thought about it that way, I knew I had to give it a try.” By projecting himself into the future, Bezos got a taste of the existential regret that comes from choices that run counter to our convictions or need for growth.
Let fear be a teacher.
Compounding fears about what you’re giving up, you may also worry about the odds of success. You might question the viability of your idea, your capacity to develop it, or your ability to break into an established market or influence a mature industry. Such fears may crystallize into a generalized foreboding that can bring you to a standstill. A common tactic for managing them is to suppress them and carry on regardless. But research shows that in doing so, you may miss important red flags. Fear isn’t just an inhibiting force; it can be a powerful teacher, signaling that you are underequipped or underinformed. So pinpointing the source of your angst is critical to addressing it.
As Bezos committed to pursuing his venture, he was plagued by fears that it would fail. He told his parents that there was a 70% chance they would not get their seed money back. He was confident in the soundness of his idea, having rigorously analyzed the landscape and determined that books were the most viable products to sell online, but he was less sure that he had the knowledge to successfully execute on it. He realized that he could bolster his chances by securing access to a rich pool of tech talent and a wide array of books, so he relocated to Seattle—home of Microsoft and just a few hours’ drive from the largest book distributor in the United States. His fears drove him to work out key technical and logistical challenges in advance.
By contrast, Bill Gates had great confidence in his ability to execute on the idea that would become Microsoft, but he had to overcome two personal liabilities: introversion and a youthful appearance. So when he pitched his (yet to be written) software to the makers of the Altair kit computer—making the call from his Harvard dorm—he introduced himself as Paul Allen, his unofficial and two-years-older business partner. Gates knew that if the customer showed interest, the more outgoing and mature-looking Allen would take the meeting. Years later Allen told the Harvard Gazette, “I had my beard going and at least looked like an adult, while Bill still could pass for a high school sophomore.” Although Gates and Allen later fell out, Gates has said that entering into their partnership was the best business decision he ever made.
Once you’ve identified the source of your fears, you can seek information or partners to compensate for your shortcomings in terms of competence or credibility or both.
The Frustration of Setbacks
You’ve probably heard the adage about learning from failure. But as Indiana University’s Dean Shepherd has emphasized, the process is not automatic: It requires conscious effort and discipline. These steps can guide you.
Dissect your failure.
The trouble with failure, beyond the obvious, is that it generates negative emotions that impede learning: denial, anger, despair, and self-blame. Innovators are especially prone to those feelings because they identify so closely with their projects. To avoid that pitfall, start by dissecting your failure. Exactly what went wrong, and why? Which premises were false? Which ones held true?
Jimmy Wales was keenly frustrated in 2000 about the snail-like progress of his first online encyclopedia venture, Nupedia. He and his editor-in-chief, Larry Sanger, assumed that it “needed to be superacademic, or people wouldn’t trust it.” The entries were indeed on a par with academic publications—but so was the pace of production. “I spent about $250,000 getting the first 12 articles through the process,” Wales has said. Eventually he decided to investigate the problem by writing an entry himself. He realized that the peer-review system was incredibly cumbersome for his contributors, who were unpaid. At that moment Wales understood that his initial plan wouldn’t work. It was the first step in coming to terms with his disappointment and finding a path forward.
Face your grief head-on.
As an innovator, you’ll experience major letdowns, reversals, or rejections as threats to your dream and your ego. To deal with those deeply felt losses, our IMD colleague George Kohlrieser proposes a three-step process based on research with thousands of executives. It requires first bringing the grief to conscious awareness—putting a name to what you’re feeling and discussing it with family, friends, and others to make sense of it. That will help you take the next two steps: accepting and then letting go of the loss, and taking action in a new direction.
Shortly after Wales’s eye-opening experience with Nupedia, he and Sanger created a separate encyclopedia website powered by wiki software—technology that allows multiple people to work interactively on drafts. In just two weeks 600 entries came in. The contributors were not recognized authorities, and there was no way to control the quality of their submissions. “If I had tied my ego to the original design…I would have stopped,” Wales has said. But because he was already half-resigned to moving on from Nupedia, he was able to shift gears. And so Wikipedia was born.
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