Needs some context

I’ve been thinking about creativity and innovation today, and that led me to remember a particular quote that I’ve always liked from the movie “Robots“: “See a need, fill a need.”

This is a variation on the enduring “find a need and fill it” quote typically attributed to Ruth Stafford Peale, and I admit that I had to look that up because I couldn’t remember her name. However, I prefer the Robots quote, if only because it appeals a little more to my sense of rhythm. In any case, the message is the same: innovation comes from recognizing opportunities. It really couldn’t be any simpler than that.

Which is, of course, part of the issue…because it’s not really that simple, is it? After all, history is full of ideas that one person thought would fill a need, but no one else actually wanted. Conversely, history is also full of ideas that filled a need no one knew existed. And that’s where it gets tricky, because both of those results could start from the very same thing.

Recent history includes crowdsourcing websites such as Kickstarter, where people can post their innovative project ideas and find out if anyone cares. Crowdsourcing is, in effect, the ultimate referendum on “need”, though I suppose there’s also a strong component of “want”.

And that’s the truth, isn’t it? It’s not really a question of whether your innovative idea does or does not fill a need. If it fills your own need, then that’s a start. If you’re confident that it will fill other people’s needs, then that’s a crowdsourcing campaign. If you’re right, you’re right. If you’re wrong, you’re wrong.

But either way, it’s still innovation. Well, unless you stole the idea from someone else. Then it’s just a rip-off. And lord knows, there’s lots of that going on in the world, too.

No, it’s not a question of whether or not you’re innovating. In reality, it’s a question of whether or not you’re willing to fail. I’d hazard that a fear of failure—or a lack thereof—is one of our defining qualities as human beings. Some people put their fear of failure to good use, while others are crippled by it. Those who lack fear might go down the same path over and over again, being proven wrong five, six, or seven times. Maybe they’ll eventually be proven right. And if so, at what cost?

Of course, I don’t think it’s really that black and white. Like most things in this world, fear of failure exists on a relative scale of total fear to no fear at all. For most of us, it’s contextual. We might have no fear when we’re the only person at stake, but total fear when someone we care about is also impacted. Look no further than the driver who tailgates and runs red lights when they’re by themselves, but drives carefully when someone else is in the car.

Side note. People often wonder how others can be so reckless when they drive and willingly endanger other people’s lives. The way I see it, if those drivers don’t care about their own safety, then how could they possibly care about mine? They notice when someone’s sitting in the seat next to them, but other vehicles aren’t people…they’re just in the way. I’m not the world’s best driver by any means, and I make my share of mistakes, but I care about the safety of everyone with whom I share the road. I just wish that more people felt the same.

Getting back to the point, perhaps it’s not enough to say, “see a need, fill a need.” At face value, that suggests that every innovative idea is worth pursuing. And frankly, I’m not convinced. I suppose I might say, “see a need, test a need, fill a need.” Then it’s not about just blindly following a path…there’s an element of gaining perspective in order to better see the path. To appreciate whether or not pursuing the idea fits within your fear spectrum.

But man, that ain’t catchy or inspirational. It fails the bumper-sticker test…which I suppose we should re-imagine as the Facebook-wall test, since the bumper-sticker industry ain’t what it used to be.

How about “see a need, fill need. Just don’t be an idiot about it.”

Now, that might pass the Facebook-wall test.