How ideas escape their prisons

In a series of posts, called readers choice, I write on whatever topics people submit.

This week: Helping great ideas escape your prison (e.g. research lab)

Any time you think of where you work as a prison, for you or your ideas, you’re in big trouble. Prisons are hard places for anything to escape from – that’s why they’re called prisons.

But the comparison is apt – if you were actually trying to escape from a prison, you’d start getting very smart about how the place works. You’d study the behavior of the guards, their bosses, and the prisoners who might be in a position to help you, until you understood how they work better than they do. Only then will you see the opportunities for getting out. Every prison has a black market, and that market is driven by people smart and motivated enough to out-think the system they’re in.

Questions to ask:

Have any ideas escaped at all? A research lab, in theory, has the goal of bringing ideas to someone. It could be to the VPs of other parts of a company, or to a government, to other organizations. The first question to ask is – is this true? What is the last ideas that ‘escaped’? Was it a product? a feature? A research paper? A prototype? How did they do it? Whose help did they get? Follow their trail and pick their brains for advice. If no idea has ever escaped, you have very big problems, as you might truly work in an idea prison. If so, why not go to a place more friendly to ideas, even if it pays less or has less prestige?

In the end every prison, real or metaphoric, is a series of doors, and people with keys to those doors. What are the doors and who has the keys? It is possible the doors and the keys are already yours.

Who else is interested in escaping? Go watch The Great Escape (even if it’s the 24th time). The only way these prisoners of war could escape a Nazi prison involved dozens of people working together with a shared goal. Who else do you know that wants their idea(s) to escape? Partner with them. Share notes. Conspire together to use your collective assets, improving your odds of success.

Don’t expect to be rewarded. If you think the system you are in doesn’t reward good work, and you want to do good work, why on earth would you expect to be rewarded for it? The value system you are in is the opposite of yours. It will be hard work to get a idea of yours out there, but when it happens, it’d be silly to expect everyone you just had to work around to be thrilled about it. The old quote “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.” Perhaps the only ideas that thrive are the ones your boss thinks is hers. Or for an idea to thrive it you will have to take a bad review, or give up a raise. The long history of people with good ideas often involves others not accepting them until after they’ve seen the ideas in use. You might need to sacrifice the next six months or a year, to get the idea going, placing a bet once it’s in use your superiors will reward you then.

Fail more often. There are many creative cliches around failure. “Fail faster” people say, forgetting how not fun failure is. But the spirit of this is sound. Each time you try to get an idea to escape, you have the opportunity to learn something about your research lab you didn’t know before. If you pitch a brilliant idea in front of the senior staff, and are soundly rejected, there might just be one person in the room who comes up to you after and offers to help. He’d never find you if you hadn’t ‘failed’.

4 Responses to “How ideas escape their prisons”

  1. Pawel Brodzinski

    I would add one more. Fight for ideas even if you know you’re going to lose. I don’t mean here coming again and again with the same old concept, but just not accepting rejection easy. OK, they don’t like the idea. So what? That doesn’t mean they don’t have to (try to) convince you the idea is bad.

    This is a problem for me personally since I often stop defending my positions when the only thing I see is resistance. On the other hand I’ve seen enough ideas which had their defenders who haven’t left the post as long as these ideas were redefined into better, and acceptable, ones.

    I know there is a thin line between consistence and obstinacy and we should cross that line. Unfortunately when it comes to support ideas we rarely get even close to the line.

  2. AJ

    And sometimes you just have to take it outside of the organized system because the Organization is too big to be able to even make the decision to change direction.

  3. Scott Berkun



    Every organization has a maximum amount of change it can absorb. A sufficiently good idea will exceed that amount and be rejected no matter how good it is.

  4. Mike Nitabach

    The best “failure” cliche is “Fail Upwards”.


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