Always Be Second

© 2002 Gerald M. Weinberg,

These days, with all the talk about “internet time,” professional workers are always trying to be the first with new ideas. But is that really the only path to success? Is it, indeed, a very effective path at all? What about being second?

Our culture certainly encourages people to be “first.” In school, the emphasis ranges from who raises a hand first in class to who graduates with the highest grade-point average. The valedictorian – first in the class – gets lots of honors, but the salutatorian – second in the class – has to make the speech (phooey!).

Sports competitions also honor the “winner,” and books on problem solving and business often borrow this metaphor – emphasizing finding the “winning” idea before anybody else. But most problem-solving areas of life are not, in fact, like sports. Its not having the idea that matters, its what you do with the idea that counts.

And, in fact, ideas dont count that much in sports, either. Anyone can have the idea, “Hit a home run now and win the game,” but theres a lot more to hitting home runs than simply having the idea. To have a fair chance of hitting a home run, you have to practice, practice, and practice. As in most of life, the key issue is not who is there first with the idea; the key issue is how you develop the idea once you have it. Its not your ideas alone that win, but ideas plus capability and the will to develop your ideas.

If you think having ideas first is the issue, consider this. Every year, tens of thousands of individuals start businesses based on being the first with a “new” idea. If that was all it took to be wildly successful, many of these firms would quickly displace all of the giant firms and become giants themselves, every year! Yes, we all know stories of small firms that had a better idea and indeed succeeded at becoming giants, but most of the time, the giants persist and the midgets fall humbly by the wayside.

Giant companies survive the onslaught of little start-ups with one of two strategies:
1. Exploring many parallel ideas and developing the few good ones.
2. Letting others do most of the searching for ideas, then developing the few good ones.

What can the individual professional learn from these strategies?

Exploring many parallel ideas depends on having huge amounts of capital, which the individual professional cannot manage. But even giants couldnt afford to have so many explorations in the pipeline if they didnt know how to kill the ones that show no promise, and kill them early. So, for the individual, the lesson of this strategy is to learn how to let go.

For me, letting go means not trying to maintain leading-edge competence in every field in which I was once competent. I used to be one of the worlds great IBM 704 assembly language programmers, and I suppose there are still some jobs maintaining such code, but I dont think Id want them anyway. Ive let go of that one, along with dozens of others.

Letting go also means that I dont try to pursue every new fad I happen to hear mentioned at a conference or on the web – which leads me into the second strategy – letting others do most of the searching for me.
In a field where capital costs are low (like software development), chances are better that some small firm will come up with the good idea first because there are tens of thousands of such small firms out there. In that case, the big successful companies dont rely on coming up with every good idea first. Instead, they pursue an “always be second” policy, and support it. They maintain some minimal competency in a wide variety of areas, so that theyll readily recognize one of these good ideas when it comes along – from another company, or often from one of their customers. Then, theyll either copy the idea, buy the rights, or buy the company.

Im not able to buy companies, or even their licenses, but I am able to learn from them. And, under some circumstances, I can ally with them. That way, even a single individual can pursue an always-be-second strategy.
To be a great second, I use a process that resembles the way a breeder produces improved plants and animals, with three essential elements: variation, selection, and retention. Variation provides the new ideas; selection weeds out the ones lacking promise; and retention propagates the ones that survive the selection.

Variation (new ideas) for an individual, comes from using a network to supply information from literally hundreds of sources. By communication with people in my network, I can be sure that few new ideas escape my attention. I have created a huge virtual organization, far larger than any real organization I could afford. The AYE Conference is a central element of that network, where I can meeting many of my “nodes” face-to- face once a year and exchange ideas and experiences.

The network provides some of the selection, too. First of all, any idea that nobody passes on to me is unlikely to be a worthwhile idea. Conversely, when I hear of the same idea from three separate sources, I raise its “score.” Of course, in order for this selection process to be meaningful, I have to consider the reliability of my sources. For example, if I hear an idea supported enthusiastically by certain people, I reduce its score.
I work hard to keep my network alive and healthy so I can depend on it to do a good job of variation and selection. Ultimately, though, I have to rely on myself to select which ideas are worth retaining and developing, but the whole process is designed to keep me from developing “neat things” that dont fit the market.

I dont know how to automate the retention and development of ideas, so it takes a lot of work, and I cant afford to develop very many new ideas the way a large organization might. Sometime I can share work by co- developing ideas (seminars, books, articles) with colleagues from my network. But ultimately, I have to develop in my own way, to create the unique service I can sell to my clients. This is the place where it pays me to be first – I may be satisfied being second in the race to market, but I always try to be first in quality.

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