Aside

Developing Ideas + Dealing with Haters

Whew!

I feel like I just gave birth to an intellectual baby. And it was a big one. A 10-lber. And pushing it out was hard. And some people thought it was ugly.

Regular readers to Yes & Know will have noticed I’ve been sucked into a particular idea for months now… Writing this 5-part series on business models in the social era was more taxing than it looked. With this post, I want to take you behind the story, to share the process of developing an idea and writing, having “haters”, and the lessons I learned along the way.

(just be warned, it’s long)

The Genesis of The Idea
For some time now, I have been looking for content to frame the ideas of “social” to CEO-types. Yet, Social was always paired with the word media. Social media as it relates to CEOs or Boards would often come down to an idea like, “the CEO’s blog”. Sometimes Social also talked about as allowing an era of transparency as in employees can know more about a firm, brands can know more about its customers and citizens can play a more active role in governance. But that gave very little concreteness to orient an organization. In the fall of 2011, several strategists started using the term, Social Business, hinting that the thinking of social might get meatier. While the language changed to up-level the social idea to the C-Suite & Board, the specifics continued to center on ideas like conversation, listening, and social intelligence. Important ideas, surely, but the language (if not the ideas) were still too marketing-centric, and thus (for Boards and C-Suites, at least) missing the point.

This extreme excitement at the idea of someone actually writing the right framework and then the subsequent disappointment turned out to be important. The term social business was directionally correct but the content failed to answer the central question: What, if any, difference does social make to the way the entire business operates? I kept looking for the link on the way to use social to organize and make money in new and different ways to send to people…that needed to know this, and nothing existed.

Lesson: When you can’t find what you are looking for, maybe you are the one to create it.

So, then, I was talking to a friend and fellow thinker, Salim Ismail, and learned his management ideas post-Yahoo to how Singularity U was organized, and I was thinking YES, this is a template of organizational design in the social era. I recommended that he write it up, because it needed to be written. I realized as I drove home that I had another 10 or so examples I had been writing and/or thinking about in bits and pieces that related. The parts first came as components like crowd-sourcing, freemium models, community constructs, open data, broad based communication platforms like Twitter, etc…but it was when they were looked at in totality that they formed a new way to create value.

As I went back to my writing cave, I plugged into the idea non-stop for a week. At the end, I had a solid 4,000-word piece of the business models in the social era. When Salim and I had coffee to discuss it further, he was the one who pointed out these case studies covered every aspect of an organizational design and recommended I organize the idea with that basic framework. Thus the table that was used in Part V was formed.

Lesson: We sometimes think “what’s cool” is a new idea, but sometimes the framework makes us understand the ideas we already have.

During this process, my editor at HBR and I talked about this nugget as being a 1000-word article, a 4000 word feature, and so on. I wrote and rewrote several times to fit different models but also just to develop out the ideas. Each turn took a ridiculous amount of time because writing in this case is not just a process of organizing an idea, but developing – and more importantly, refining – the idea. I discount how much work that takes when in reality I need to honor it.

Lesson: Editing is finding the 1% that is sublime and editing out the other 99%.

 

Inviting People In was Phase II of the Journey:
When most of us think of writers, we think of that solo moment, thinking deep thoughts. We rarely ever think about how an idea gets shaped… I started to reach out to some thinkers that had adjacent ideas to this. I made a list … Lisa Gansky (mesh system of innovation), Peter Sims (little bets), Jennifer Aaker (network-related thinker and prof at Stanford GSB) and started calling/reaching out. Colleagues such as Terri Griffith (and OD expert), Tim Kastelle (an innovation-focused academic), Julien Smith (brilliant writer), Sameer Patel, Michael Mace (best strategist I know in tech), nudged the idea forward with each conversation. Michael especially pointed out that while Christensen’s work focused on continually taking the cost of what you make, I was trying to apply the principle based on how the business was organized. As I pushed against the construct of scale as BIG and isolated, the “800 Lb Gorilla” analogy came to mind. The comparison started to take the form of the analog of 800 “Gazelles” (which to me represents the notion of singularly unique, scaled thru community, and with shared principles…). This concept, and the notion of adaptability is one all of these folks encouraged and / or inspired.

Lesson: When you ask for advice, spend enough time listening.  

Andrew Blau of the Global Business Network not only provided a sounding board and advice, but then called me the next day to say that “this framework is providing language for something I intuitively knew was true”. He was using the Gazelles / nimbleness concept in context the next day and it was helping the ensuing understanding. That part of me that questioned that some of this was a rehash of known ideas and whether there was “an audience” was quieted. More so than anything else, it was this idea of providing language and construct that gave this project a reason for continuing. I’ve always found value in creating shared language and constructs.

…Each person nudged, asked, challenged in ways that made me think about what this idea was. Tony Schwartz said for me to stop talking gazelles or nimble but point out the true benefit: to be fast, fluid, flexible.

Of my advisors, 2 people (in the 6 months I worked on this) said it was a lame idea. One thought the idea itself was interesting, but that it wasn’t big enough to be worth pursuing. Because they thought not enough people would care, I shouldn’t care. As if being popular to broad-based audiences is all that matters. (I’ll take this thread about what to do with crappy advice into another post). And the other person I slowly converted in the process of having the idea become crisp. All the input, musings, and dialogues really shaped the idea. But they took time on both my part and others.

Lesson:  Considered ideas form much like Pennies add up to Dollars. Have good thinking partners to do that with.

Sarah Green of HBR and I stewed on where to take this, and finally trusted that this idea needed to be released into the wild as a first step. We would then trust where the idea took us from there. I was already 3 months into content development. And thought I was “done” but moving it to the blog meant starting anew. We decided on an organizing principle right before the holidays started, and then I had some more work to do.

Starting in January, I started working on the pieces. I must have written 20,000 words which all ended up on the cutting room floor. But by the end of January, I had good drafts for parts 1, 2, and 3 together. Because it was a blog format, each piece to stand entirely on its own, but also tie out. As I worked on #2, I would go back and tune part I, and so on. After #1 was released, I tuned part 2, and so on. Very much listening to what people were saying about the ideas and finding the intersection points where the ideas would connect. As the series built, so did the fidelity of the idea. That couldn’t have happened in the privacy of one’s own mind.

Lesson: Releasing ideas “into the wild” is a way to let them get stronger.

Throughout the process, I wanted it go faster, and be so much clearer. I would get very frustrated with myself that it took so long to write the darn 1000 words. And then I would get frustrated again, when a particular idea would end up at 1600 words that needed to be 1300 words. I hated the writing, editing and reediting. I was afraid that in kneading the dough of the idea, the idea would lose its energy, rather than develop more fully.

One thing I’ve especially practiced in 2011 is to tell stories. It was no longer enough to do the  biz speak, and to have a point of view, I wanted to create a narrative that lets people come to their OWN take of an idea. I didn’t want to abandon that for this series, but it put a burden on a 5-part series that I’m not sure I was up for.

Lesson: Writing is often about taking something that is intuitive to you, and making it coherent to someone else. Making a thread that connects seemingly disparate ideas IS worth pursuing. But it may not be easy.

Impatience aside, once Parts I, II, III were done I knew we were there because I also had a crisp sense of what Parts IV and V would be. We pushed the “go” button on the series. But I had other obligations going on… When Part III published with a rather controversial headline, I was heads down at a conference that I pay a lot of money to go to. While I read through some comments, liked a few, I wanted to return to a full keyboard  (not my mobile device) to write more thoughtful remarks to the people who were offering critiques. I had no idea that this selective listening – as it was perceived to be – would inflame hate. And hate they did. One guy who works with Clayton Christensen according to his bio on Twitter went through and liked EVERY negative comment on the post. That takes some serious work. I mean, some really serious work. He was committed to telling me I was wrong, wrong, wrong. I don’t know if he would have done this if I had responded right away, but I have to believe it was a contributing factor.

Then these guys said more personal things — that I didn’t deserve to write for HBR, that my content was not case-study intensive, that I was “an empress without clothing”.

They might as well have called me a heretic and burned me at the stake. How dare someone challenge a management icon on a 40-year old concept?! How dare someone who didn’t go to Harvard suggest we reframe how we think about the way we do work!? How dare she challenge convention?!

Well not everyone who was in on the debate felt that way – many had valid debate-worthy points– but the personal attacks were definitely fueled by a certain “don’t change the status quo” kind of energy.

Lesson: Edgy ideas are not always well received. And we all better get used to that.

If you had asked me on that Friday whether I could handle having 12 + people say that I wasn’t HBR-material, that I was an empress without clothing, etc, I’m sure I would have been oh-so-cool about it … because in theory that sounds so crazy.

But I gotta admit that the whole Hater thing, and personal attacks got to me. I pulled a rip-cord of sorts by reaching out to people to help me frame it right. Some solid supportive feedback arrived, most of which was not “oh, dear thing” but more “get over it, you got work to do”. Complete strangers who saw the haters, sent emails of support. And #KITFU was formed.

When you have an idea that is new or disrupts, some people won’t find your ideas worthwhile. And those people who are threatened based on what it means to their identity will find a way to make it personal. Sure, it’s immature. Haters aren’t interested in conversation, they are interested in being right. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt when you are the target of their attack. Until you see shit said about you, you really don’t know what your response will be. The question is really how you handle it.

Lesson: My mission WILL change the status quo. I want to see individuals understand their own agency and for organizations to unlock the potential inherent in that. There’s a long way to go to get business to be more human-centered or customer-centric not just talk about it. This mission isn’t small. Time to suit up for that exchange.

I really DO think there was a value in the debate going on as people engaged around the ideas and I was GLAD to have sparked that dialogue.

But it did make me want to hide under the bedcovers when it came to writing post IV. I rewrote the next piece 2 more times in 2 days, finally finding an angle that worked given the vehemence of response on Post III. I am still reflecting on what I would have written had the haters not come out. But I like how IV ended up, forming the questions that people are stuck by. But it meant that I was now spending another 15 hours per post after I thought I was done. Luckily, my editor really worked with me on some tight timelines.

I reworked Part V 4 full times, Part IV, 3 full times, Part III several major times, and so on. Each comment and cycle allowed the ideas to grow and mature because they were being engaged in community. That meant more work but the final “output” of the idea was much better for having been done with community…

So, Final Lesson: Be fast, fluid, flexible when writing about being fast, fluid, flexible. ;-) More to the point, it is this: whatever you work on, embody it fully.

The sharing opened up a dialogue. My editor tells me that the series has already been viewed well over 100,000 times, and is one of the most commented on at Harvard Business Review. And of course, this idea continues to have legs. We ought to continue the conversation. This is how ideas are shaped, and how we are shaped by ideas. It is by engaging with one another that an idea starts to shape how we think about things.

+++

When I do keynotes at conferences, the organizers often ask me to also do an informal lunch with a 100 or so people and do an interactive discussion. The 1 question I get asked by every audience so far is this one: “How did you become such a good writer?” And while I could argue the premise, one thing I want this post to do… to share this: it is in doing the work that we get to practice any craft. I keep an archive on this blog of everything I’ve written in 7 years. If you did an archeological dig, you can see that writing is, like everything else, a process of learning / applying / improving and then learning the next thing. Funny enough is that I said that in 2012 (this year), I am working on getting better at headlines. I’d say maybe the “Porter’s Model No Longer Works” headline was an interesting learning experiment.

 

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14 Responses:

  1. Jean Russell. March 21, 2012 at 1:17 am  |  

    Cheering you on Nilofer! Thank you for being vulnerable, revealing your process and journey, and asserting your strength and conviction. Thank you for learning how to write and how to process ideas. Much gratitude.

    Reply
  2. Amber Naslund. March 21, 2012 at 1:21 am  |  

    Please, please, please don’t stop being an intelligent and exploratory voice in this nascent world. We need voices full of ideas, and I for one am listening and contemplating intently. Thought provocation is so important when the shift is so great.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. March 21, 2012 at 9:44 pm  |  

      YOU GOT IT.

      Reply
  3. Greg Hartle. March 21, 2012 at 6:22 am  |  

    THIS is transparency! Thanks for sharing your process and lessons learned. I appreciate the perspective and will reflect on my own process now.

    Reply
  4. Tim Kastelle. March 21, 2012 at 7:31 am  |  

    Thanks for sharing your insights on the process Nilofer. It’s always useful to see how others work. I’m really glad that the dinosaurs turned into birds idea made it into the final version!

    With regard to the HBR comments, I don’t think that anything you would have done could have changed it. And it’s a huge trap to start thinking that way – because then you end up blaming yourself, not the people that have their own axe to grind. And it is entirely their issue, not yours. People always resist new ideas, particularly those people that have a stake in the continued success of the old ideas.

    All in all, it’s a terrific series, and HBR is lucky that they got to publish it.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. March 21, 2012 at 9:36 pm  |  

      Yes, that was YOU — the dinosaur to the bird linkage.

      Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. March 21, 2012 at 9:44 pm  |  

      I almost want to ignore the other point about the haters, but I think you raise a good one.

      Everyone thinks they aren’t sexist or racist. They think OTHER people are. It’s like the fact that all drivers think they are above-average. But making the attack PERSONAL, like that, it crossed a line. And I’m sure that there’s some story that Maxwell Wessell is telling himself… that he was trying to be helpful, or something.

      But he became the person who made it okay to incite and spread Hate. He moved beyond hating the idea to then making the argument about THE PERSON. By being the 2nd person to click, he didn’t let some idiot (who clearly didn’t share his real name) make a personal attack and let it die out. NO, by clicking on it, he invited OTHER people to make the personal attack a movement. It’s Derek Siver’s 2nd Dancer concept, applied as the Dark Side.

      (I do tend to be the person to find a lesson I can personally take away from anything… and so my original comment still holds true as a lesson for me… I wish I hadn’t said anything rather than pick and choose what to comment on from the mobile device. I know better that people interpret in weird ways online.)

      But I think the new LESSON is what you point out: We should all be more careful with our clicks. We can be a 2nd dancer by what we click on. For good and the not-so-good. Click the path towards love or a path towards hate. And remember that when you attack a person, you are crossing a line that hurts a soul. And, don’t think that you’re not a participant. When you choose the personal attack; you’ve gone to the dark side of the web.

      Reply
  5. Elizabeth Basden. March 21, 2012 at 7:21 pm  |  

    I think perhaps it was the idea that you would actually cite other people’s work in your posts (which is a requirement for any half-baked academic journal, much less a well-respected title like HBR) in something that is a blog format (where most people present ideas that were first communicated by others as their own) that may have thrown some people off.

    What were you thinking??!?

    The series was well-written and thought-provoking and yes, cutting-edge. Here’s a thought: Before the internet, before social media, before NOW, such a series would have either had to have been published in one chunk (which would have decreased its “building upon understanding” impact) or published in parts in a monthly journal (which would have killed its immediacy). I agree with Tim Kastelle–HBR is lucky they got to publish it.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. March 21, 2012 at 9:36 pm  |  

      You know, I am SO glad the idea got released in a series (it was a first for HBR so props go to Sarah Green who made it happen)…Wasn’t “easier’ but it was made better. Thanks for reminding me about how different NOW is from THEN.

      Reply
  6. Louis. March 21, 2012 at 10:41 pm  |  

    Nilofer,

    I learn more from a single one of your posts than ten other bloggers combined, on a consistent basis. Your article on Porter is brilliant. I passed it out to my MBA class on corporate strategy, as about 20% of the class content is based on Porter. My class loved it too.

    If you’re attracting critics you must be doing something right! Be strong and galvanized by how much insight and intelligence you deliver to readers. When critics go personal it’s because they feel threatened – and jealous of what an excellent writer you are.

    You have a very unique, insightful and intelligent voice that must be heard. Don’t ever think of silencing it. The world definitely needs to hear what you have to say.

    Be strong and keep writing!!! My class is expecting you to.

    All the best,

    Elias

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. March 22, 2012 at 12:03 am  |  

      Your students get a real value from you being open to new ideas. The guy I mention in the post that went through and liked EVERY negative comment out of a hundred comments. He runs an innovation forum for HBS. How open can you be to innovation if you can’t even consider an alternative point of view without personally attacking the person with those views? Yeah. Exactly.

      And, THANKS for the encouragement. Really.

      Reply
  7. Tony Frame. March 24, 2012 at 2:53 pm  |  

    Nilofer,

    No matter how sophisticated I become, I like to remember Dale Carnegie’s advice: “Unjust criticism is often a disguised compliment. It often means that you have aroused jealousy and envy. Remember that no one ever kicks a dead dog.”

    I’m a subscriber to your articles via RSS and read them on a weekly basis in Google Reader.

    There must be a way to offer feedback without tearing up people:) You write extremely well which I always respect as a skill and offer one opinion that might prove useful.

    I rely on you to explain how the traditional themes apply to social media; to me, that’s what makes you unique in my stream; because you write so well, it’s easy to related with principles we all know and which don’t change; the new tools challenge the practitioners, and we need to learn how to apply them to the new environment.

    Example: You’re on the right track with this sentence, and I share your enthusiasm: “One thing I’ve especially practiced in 2011 is to tell stories. It was no longer enough to do the biz speak, and to have a point of view, I wanted to create a narrative that lets people come to their OWN take of an idea.”

    I remember HBR articles that discuss same topics you mention and maybe some credit is due to them; they don’t take away from the contribution you make.

    Examples:

    “What’s Your Story?”
    http://hbr.org/product/harvard-management-communication-letter-july-2003-/an/C03070-PDF-ENG?N=4294841677%204294841679%204294958507%204294841678%204294841675%20516164&Ntt=Communication&Nao=20

    Dialogue: The Ultimate Communication
    http://hbr.org/product/dialogue-the-ultimate-communication/an/6679BC-PDF-ENG?N=4294841677%204294841679%204294958507%204294841678%204294841675%20516164&Ntt=Communication&Nao=20

    How to Improve Your Writing Process: First, Kill the Editor,
    http://hbr.org/product/harvard-management-communication-letter-may-2001-v/an/C01050-PDF-ENG?N=4294841677%204294841679%204294958507%204294841678%204294841675%20516164&Ntt=Communication&Nao=130

    “Can Metaphors Make You More Persuasive?”
    http://hbr.org/product/harvard-management-communication-letter-october-20/an/C02100-PDF-ENG?N=4294841677%204294841679%204294958507%204294841678%204294841675%20516164&Ntt=Communication&Nao=110

    “Tuning in to Your Customers.”
    http://hbr.org/product/harvard-management-communication-letter-july-1999-/an/C99070-PDF-ENG?N=4294841677%204294841679%204294958507%204294841678%204294841675%20516164&Ntt=Communication&Nao=50

    What’s Your story
    http://hbr.org/2005/01/whats-your-story/ar/1

    I can remember a few more but can’t locate them.

    Wish you great success,
    TF

    Reply
  8. Farhana Huq. March 25, 2012 at 5:00 pm  |  

    Haven’t been following your posts but the title of this has made me intrigued so I’m going to read! Good thing about having haters and trolls is that it results in more readership! :-) Keep on keeping on. It’s good to rock the boat….fosters new thinking and creativity. Even if people hate, the seed of the idea is still out there. GO GIRL!

    Reply

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