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To Innovate, Find a Friend not a Leader

Inside large complex organizations, ideas are cheap, often discovered and tossed aside. When we have an idea, our first inclination is to secure leadership support. However, most successful innovation starts with finding a friend. Just think about it for a moment, leaders are inundated with new ideas on a daily basis. They couldn’t possibly endorse them all and keep the business running. As a result, they are predisposed to reject most ideas. On the other hand, a friend is vested in your relationship. They want to help. Socialization with a friend offers an initial gut check of an idea, and it provides an initial perspective as to what to do next. A friend can provide a helping hand.

There is another significant reason why friends matter. They provide social proof to others. Derek Sivers introduced the power of this concept during his 2010 TED conference. He showed a video of a single shirtless guy dancing alone in a field at a music festival. At first the guy looks like a drunken lunatic who needs some friends to settle him down. But then something amazing happens. The first follower enters the dance, and all of a sudden the lunatic’s original idea, of dancing shirtless in the field, is beginning to look interesting to others. Soon, the second guy begins to wave others onto the scene, and while initially the bystanders looked at that shirtless man dancing alone as a nut, now they have become intrigued because for some inexplicable reason, two guys dancing in the field just isn’t as crazy. As the video goes on, another person joins in, and then two more people join in. Soon, a band of dancing men and women is forged, making it far more comfortable for others to join in. This quickly turns into a crowd of dancing people across the field. As Sivers points out in his talk, it was the first follower who turned the shirtless lunatic into a brilliant creator. The first follower holds the power to transform an individual with a unique idea into a movement.

The same is true for the first friend. The person who introduces the idea will often get the credit, but it is the friend who validates the idea to others. This person reinforces the idea and encourages the creator to continue in the development process. Without a first friend, the idea will eventually dissipate—in other words, the dancer will give up. The friend actually emboldens the creator to double down on the idea. The first friend is also the one who draws others onto the scene, encouraging them to engage. Furthermore, first friends appear more trustworthy to others because they offer a more unbiased view. After all, it wasn’t their idea to begin with, and yet they have freely chosen to invest in it. First friends also enhance the social equity of the idea’s creator. They provide a kind of unbiased reference for the idea. The idea seems less weird or risky as a crowd begins to gather. As interests emerge from these interactions, the circle of friends is expanded and confidence to pursue the idea gains momentum.

By opening up adaptive space, we invite friends into the process so that we can seed our network for greater success. Or as one of my friends once said, “a great idea can be stopped by a single no, but it can also be catapulted by one profound yes.” This is why the first friend is essential to innovation.

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