Tuesday, March 17, 2009

If an idea falls in the forest...

C. Engdahl
Product Marketing Manager
Sopheon

You’ve heard this classic riddle: If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Eighteenth Century philosopher George Berkeley posed this question to illustrate the idea of “subjective idealism” – the idea that people, places, and things do not exist unless someone is around to perceive them. We don’t really hear much about subjective idealism anymore. Seems like the only surviving remnant of this philosophical idea is this often repeated riddle.

My elementary aged daughter came home from school about a year ago and (with a smile on her face) asked me this exact question? She must have just heard the riddle at school that day and figured she’d stump her old man.

She didn’t really appreciate my response. “It depends on how you define sound,” I said. “If sound is defined as a wave, then the tree falling indeed makes a sound. If sound is created by the wave vibrating the ear drum of a person or other creature capable of ‘hearing’, then the tree falling does not make a sound.” I think my answer confused her a bit. The smile disappeared from her face.

(She didn’t appreciate it either a month or two later when I quickly clenched my right hand repeatedly and slapped my fingers against my palm to demonstrate the sound of one hand clapping.)

I recently returned from the 2009 Stage-Gate® Summit. Because of the economy and what I figure are shrinking travel and training budgets across corporate America, it was a more intimate event than in years past. But the Summit was excellent none-the-less. Attendees had the opportunity to hear a variety of great speakers from corporations throughout the country talk about innovation and the processes and techniques they use to manage their efforts. Many of the presenters were Sopheon clients.

Dr. Bob Cooper of course gave a presentation as well, providing valuable information regarding innovation and new product development derived from his research and experience. As I sat and listened to his remarks, I couldn’t help wonder if the information he presented would be as valuable if no one were around to hear his message.

“If an idea falls from Dr. Cooper’s mouth and no one is around to hear it, will the idea make a difference?”

Had he not had an audience I imagine he still would have been as passionate as ever. He probably would have gotten all worked up as usual, loosened his tie, and eventually taken off his coat as insights emanated from his mouth.

Let’s assume for the moment though that the audience was indeed empty and other means of transmission and communication for his ideas did not exist. No printed or electronic copies of his presentation. No webinars. No emails. No books. Nothing. How valuable would Dr. Coopers ideas be if he couldn’t share them with others?

Not very.

The ideas would stand in isolation. They'd go under-utilized and undeveloped. Without critical feedback, Dr. Cooper would have difficulty building on his own ideas. And most importantly, no one could execute against his ideas. This would be the true tragedy. For this is where the real opportunity with ideas exists. The power of ideas is fully realized when action is taken. Benefits are derived when ideation meets execution. It’s not good enough to develop a great idea. You need the means and ability to do something with it to make it truly powerful.

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