Jason Fried

October 5, 2021

Idea protectionism

On the 10th anniversary of Steve Jobs' passing, Jony Ive reflected on the man he worked with for nearly 30 years. It was a lovely remembrance, primarily orbiting the sanctity of the creative process and the burbling of ideas. It reminded me about something else Jony said about Steve in shortly after his death:

"And just as Steve loved ideas, and loved making stuff, he treated the process of creativity with a rare and a wonderful reverence. You see, I think he better than anyone understood that while ideas ultimately can be so powerful, they begin as fragile, barely formed thoughts, so easily missed, so easily compromised, so easily just squished." —Jonathan Ive

That isn't a vapid business quote. Or Steve Jobs idolatry. It's just plain fucking true.

It's so easy to lather up with scrutiny. To inject a full dose of doubt into an incipient idea that was on the inside just a moment before. There's nothing particularly constructive about knocking something new, rushing to point out the problems, demanding immediate justification, or convincing yourself it simply won't work. It's so tempting to do, especially because you're almost always guaranteed to be right that it's wrong.

The hard thing is to make room for what may be possible. To help it unfurl. To encourage emergence, to explore, to expand. To be part of the soil that helps something blossom. To wonder what could be before it can be.

To simply give something a chance before smashing it to bits.

Expecting a new idea to come out fully formed would be like asking a newborn baby to explain itself. You wouldn't assume a blank stare, shrill cry, and complete bewilderment means it'll never amount to anything. But with new ideas — often just ebbing echos of a freeform riff — that's a common presumption.

It's not the creative moment, it's the creative process — a series of layered events, similar to baking a cake. Doubt and skepticism are part of the recipe, but if you mix them in at the wrong time, things won't come together.

Of course ideas eventually need to stand up for themselves, to resolve, to be viable. But not 5 minutes in. Ideas — especially unconventional ones — are such defenseless, easy targets. Medieval towns without walls. Snails without shells.

Which brings me to improv. Something I've never done, but deeply admire.

Improv practices a potent form of protectionism that primes the pump for possibilities.

At the root of improv is the clever concept of "Yes, And". "Yes, And" creates an ally. It forces a partner to avoid rejection, and, instead, find a flow. To go with it, to work with it, to run with it. The primary aim is to make it work, and see what that work makes. It's not one against the other, it's both for co-creation. It's a framework for building something up, not shutting something down.

"Yes, And" fuels the creative process and protects the fledgling spark. It's the code for curiosity. Let's see where it goes, rather than assume we already know where it'll end up.

And like many improv skits, things don't always end up working out. Some ideas just peter out, or wander towards worse. They're "Yes, Anded" all the way to Not Funny. It happens, frequently!

When talking ideas, the time will always come for "Now What?" Or "How Then?" Or "Yeah, But". And likely, eventually, "Hell No". At some point, justification is required, as it should be. But don't start there. Create a vacuum early, otherwise apprehension rushes in.

There are few things as deeply satisfying — as thirst quenching — as partners who know when the "Yes, And" rules apply, collectively finding their way towards something unknown, promising, and inspiring, together.

"A mind is like a parachute. It doesn't work if it is not open." —Frank Zappa

About Jason Fried

Hey! I'm Jason, the Co-Founder and CEO at 37signals, makers of Basecamp and HEY. Subscribe below to follow my thinking on business, design, product development, and whatever else is on my mind. Thanks for visiting, thanks for reading.