Works of Brilliance Come From Great Processes, Not Great Ideas

You rarely see how the sausage got made

Digital generated image of abstract multi colored donut/pie chart on pastel green background.
Digital generated image of abstract multi colored donut/pie chart on pastel green background.

Co-authored by Robin M. Hogarth

Think of a creative concept that helped to shape the life and culture of the 21st century.

Harry Potter is one example. So is Google. The personal computer is another one.

If you try to list various factors behind the success of whatever idea you thought of, they will likely spring to mind with ease. The Harry Potter books, for example, give us an underdog hero who grows and develops together with the reader. Audiences of all ages can find something for themselves in this saga: friendship, adventure, struggle, love, hate, good, evil.

Google’s search engine lets us find exactly what we are looking for on the web in a matter of seconds, a simple yet incredibly powerful service that allowed the company to expand in many directions.

And the personal computer is indispensable and ubiquitous, giving users access to a world of communication, information, entertainment, and experience.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to understand, analyze, and communicate why a successful innovation worked. But pretend you could time travel back to the moment when each of these ideas had been conceived, but had not yet risen to its current place of prominence. Try to imagine what most experienced professionals in the domain would have felt when they first heard about the idea.

Surely, if multiple reasons for the popularity and success of an idea are that obvious to us now, many of these same reasons ought to have been immediately evident to such experts. Their experience should have helped them better foresee the eventual outcome, make better decisions, and profit, right?

Not really.

In practice, the more innovative and creative an idea, the likelier that it clashed with people’s experience in that field. And this clash ensured that the idea was rejected or ignored by many experts in the field, right before the moment it hit big.

The first Harry Potter manuscript was rejected not once, not twice, but roughly a dozen times by publishers. In the late 1990s, the internet giants of the era passed on the opportunity to bid for the search methodology behind Google — the same methodology that would soon put them out of business and dominate the scene for decades to come. When the Xerox company’s Palo Alto Research Center designed the first personal computer with a graphical user interface in the late 1970s, top brass at the company treated the project as a mere curiosity, instead of moving quickly to commercialize it. They even demonstrated it in detail to a group of outsiders that included a young Steve Jobs — who proceeded to adapt its key innovations in the first Apple computers.

Innovations in any field can bring about disruptive changes that contradict the lessons taught by the past, rendering personal experience unreliable for measuring a new idea’s potential. More importantly, a successful final product obscures the preceding months or years of painstaking collaboration, experimental stumbling, failure, and redesign that made the idea work.

Lessons from experience highlight with extreme clarity all the events that happen after an idea becomes widely popular and successful. Final achievements feel vivid, inevitable, and obvious in hindsight. But that’s just the visible tip of the iceberg. The rest of the process is largely hidden from observation, and we easily forget that ideas almost never stay the same as when they were first imagined.

This is why Ed Catmull, a computer scientist and the former president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, argues that ideas don’t matter nearly as much as the processes they subsequently go through. It’s no trivial feat to build and maintain a work environment where people with different skills can perform together in harmony, communicate openly with one another, improve upon each other’s ideas, prevent problems before they occur, and learn the right lessons from past projects. Pixar’s real achievement lies in creating and nurturing an ecosystem that supports the creative processes that are essential to an idea’s success.

Our judgment is biased toward ideas that have been brought to fruition and proven successful. This leads us to inappropriately glorify those ultimate successful outcomes and a few flashy creators, discounting the importance of the underlying complex and iterative processes conducted by scores of innovative individuals and risk-taking entrepreneurs. But without those processes, the ideas that we love wouldn’t exist.

We know in great detail about the evolution of the Harry Potter franchise after the popularity of the first book. We have a good idea about what happened after Google set up their search engine for the first time. And many of us have personally witnessed the explosive growth of the personal computer industry.

But what was the initial concept for each of those? How did it evolve over time? Who was involved, and how did they contribute to that evolution? The lessons of experience gloss over these specifics. Failure to acknowledge the complexity of their development skews our perceptions about creativity and what really pushes certain ideas to their highest potential.

What happens before an idea reaches popularity and success is often missing from our frame of reference, while what happens after gets constantly highlighted. As a result, creativity can seem more mysterious and exclusive than it actually is, which in turn can hurt our own motivation to create and develop ideas.

Going beyond the lessons of personal experience would instead suggest that we might not be that much less gifted than those associated with groundbreaking ideas. Instead of worrying about how our ideas might be judged, we should concentrate on designing and implementing better creative processes.

behavioral scientist, co-author of The Myth of Experience

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