Crazy Ideas

Why Strategists need to Extend the Permission Boundary and Include Crazy Ideas

To what extent are crazy ideas entertained in your organisation?

The answer to this question reveals a lot about the culture in your organisation. This is because culture is a set of permissions. The permission to be different. Permission to be creative. Permission to be crazy.

As you move closer to the permission boundary creative tension mounts. If your idea does not generate tension, it is probably not innovative because it does not change anything. Tension and resistance might be the best indicators that you are on to something significant.

Managing this tension is not easy work. Jacqueline Novogratz describes it in her book the Path of Moral Leadership as follows:

“If you dare to act on dreams of change, you must find the guts to stand apart while also building the relationships needed to design better systems”.

Many of the conversations I am engaged in through the Originize Project and with an Acumen Academy Circle revolve around the challenge of bringing new ideas to the world. Some of these ideas seem crazy. I notice that all of these ideas share a desire to make things better for others.

I am struck by how crazy ideas usually come from the periphery – by way of start-ups and newcomers. Established organisations struggle to entertain crazy ideas. The story is told of how Nestle nearly killed Nespresso because it was initially seen as a threat to the core business.

Famously Kodak never exercised its patent on the digital camera. The video rental company Blockbuster refused to countenance streaming even as it witnessed the emergence of Netflix. I recall doing an MBA case study on Amazon’s development of Amazon Marketplace for 3rd party retailers. The majority view of the class was that his was a crazy idea because Marketplace would cannibalise Amazon’s core business. That was in 2006 and we have seen what has happened since.

This raises the question of what organisations can do to stop killing their crazy ideas too soon?

Change the strategy process and extend the permission boundary

The typical strategy process involves assessing where the organisation is now, and then looking to the relative near-term (1-2 years) and putting in place a set of reasonable but ‘stretchy’ goals. This approach is based on a belief that we can predict the future from looking to the past and that a known path is the best way forward. Unfortunately, this approach is designed to filter out all of the crazy ideas from the start. In most sectors (other than those that are truly in a predictable environment – if there are any left), this approach to strategy is largely pointless.

My hypothesis is that a humanity traumatised by pandemic, facing existential environmental impacts, and that is experimenting with various exponential technologies needs a better approach to strategy. An approach that can yield the crazy ideas that are needed.

To this point Yuval Noah Harari writes in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century that:

“If someone describes to you the world of the mid-21st century and it sounds like science fiction, it is probably false. But then if someone describes to you the world of the mid-21st century  and it does not sound like science fiction, it is certainly false.”

To unleash crazy ideas, we need to leave the comfort of the near-term horizon and zoom out to the long-term future – at least ten years and ask these questions:

  1. What are the long-term trends shaping the distant future?
  2. What is our ideal outcome or intent in this scenario? What is our vision?
  3. What is the undesirable but realistic outcome that could also materialise?

Then ask – what must be true in the near-term for the desirable long-term outcome to be true? We need to permit painting ourselves into a corner to allow the strategic question to emerge.

If the question generates disbelief, it signals a crazy idea. Laughter is a great indicator – it suggests that an idea with transformative potential has been permitted into existence!

The best ideas will look impossible. If they did not, they would already be done. Permit yourself to sit with the idea and the strategic question posed by it.

This is uncomfortable work and highly counter-intuitive to the culture many of us come from. Enabling craziness requires sharing your thoughts, ideas, and aspirations with others. This can feel very risky – particularly in an environment with a narrow permission base. It is the leader’s role to model a culture that gives permission to crazy ideas.

Leaders in turn need your crazy ideas. It is not possible any longer to figure it out from the top of a hierarchy and have everyone else following the orders of the “grand strategist”.

The Originize Project

The idea for this article was inspired by my participation in the Originize Project. Orginize is dedicated to helping leaders to be more effective by creating participatory conversational experiences that reduce the gap between fantasy and reality. Read more about the Originize project.

The Acumen Academy

I am also inspired by my participation in a course delivered by the Acumen Academy titled The Path of Moral Leadership – hard edged skills to start building a better world.

Read about the lessons strategists can learn from physics. 

Contact me for a conversation.

Share this on...