Why Great Ideas Fail

I ran a session at FOO camp ’11 on Why Great Ideas Fail. It was chaotic, but my goal of leaving the room with a list of reasons was achieved – and here it is.

The crowd was tech and start-up heavy, so the list is shifted towards those pursuits. But this could be the start of a book project that more broadly explores the history of great ideas. Starting with fleshing out these categories better, and then finding good stories that illustrate ideas that failed for these reasons, as well as ideas that successfully overcame these challenges.

Meta-comment: Fascinating how many of these are opposite pairs of each other (e.g. gave up too soon, stayed with same idea for too long).

Follow up: If you were there, or not, and want to be updated if this project gets off the ground, leave a comment.

Why Great Ideas Fail:

  • Killed idea too soon
  • Stayed with idea for too long
  • Death (of person with the idea)
  • Not knowing target audience
  • Not Willing to experiment to find audience
  • Unwilling to change direction
  • Willful ignorance of economics
  • Overcoming organizational inertia
  • Not understanding the ecosystem the idea lives in
  • Inability to learn from microfailure
  • Fighting the last war
  • Giving up
  • Chindogu – solution causes more problems than it solves.
  • Randomness
  • Blamed marketing
  • Failed to pitch or communicate well
  • Not taking the idea far enough
  • Underestimating cultural limits
  • Underestimating dependencies
  • Balancing how world is vs. how world can be
  • Balancing Wants vs needs

Thanks to Val Aurora, I also got a list from attendees of personal reasons great ideas failed. Wide range of levels of specificity, but still interesting,

Specific failures people listed as their own:

  • Forcing something on people they don’t want
  • Not controlling distribution (e.g. Tivo vs. Comcast DVR)
  • Not doing post-mortems
  • Built an Airbnb before Airbnb, but didn’t see it through
  • Not eating our own dogfood
  • Building something ‘powerful’ but too complicate for the average user
  • Voice version of twitter circa 2005
  • Force change earlier. It won’t happen on its own.
  • Launching a product before it’s ready – unreliable performance
  • Not killing a project/startup faster (i.e. spinning wheels for an extra year instead of getting it out the door)
  • Trusting before researching
  • Not trusting my gut
  • Not considering political capital within a large organization
  • Trusting my gut too much
  • Juggling between being your greatest supporter and your greatest critic
story by Scott Berkun

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