Road Maker, Follower, or Hitchhiker

Are we out of big ideas? This question might sound strange considering all the technological advances that seem to evolve every day. Conventional wisdom suggests that technology, medicine, robotics, and artificial intelligence are all developing at a fever pitch. R&D budgets in corporations are at an all-time high.

Yet businesses are not producing a ton of new big ideas. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal reported that when economists look at what they call “total-factor productivity,” innovation in the United States has stagnated. We apparently peaked at an innovation score of 3.4% in the 1950s when electricity, aviation, and antibiotics reached full acceptance. Since then, we have slowly declined to a measly 0.5% for the last decade. Yes, we have iPhones, Google, and perhaps drone delivery of packages to our houses, but “improvements in everyday life have been incremental, not revolutionary,” the article says. “Houses, appliances and cars look much like they did a generation ago. Airplanes fly no faster than in the 1960s. None of the 20 most-prescribed drugs in the U.S. came to market in the past decade.”

How do today’s marketing departments reflect this trend? You could make the case that we marketers are increasingly averse to taking chances on unproven ideas. Too often, our teams spend their days chasing social media numbers. We sweat over optimizing conversion rates on email, increasing traffic or “engagement” on our web content. We work diligently to do small things to “move the needle” in increments instead of bending the needle to change the game altogether.

Granted, some big ideas are being tried. And not everyone agrees that innovation is slowing down. But whatever the trend may be, this universal truth remains: Innovators – whom I think of as road makers must be willing to make something wrong. They have to be willing to make a wrong road on the way to finding the right one. They say, “What we’re doing might fail. It might fail spectacularly. But what if it works?”

Not that there’s anything wrong with being a road follower or even a hitchhiker. The road maker needs traffic, or the road goes nowhere. The hitchhiker keeps the road followers company and gives them confidence that they’re on the right road.

If you want to lead a creative life – a life of making roads for others to follow or hitchhike on – you have to accept the obstacles and frustrations that come with it. It’s not easy to innovate: to get a work published, or push a big idea through to your boss, or convince others to make an investment that on paper has no chance. Road makers require a certain amount of faith in the face of obstacles that’s not unlike those who believe in the greater good of a God in the face of tragedy. Road makers may face scathing reviews, negativity from colleagues, skepticism from family and friends. And they face the likelihood that they will, at some point, make a wrong road.

Yet some of us continue to make roads.

Not everyone is up to it. And not everyone is up to it all the time. You may be a road maker in one situation and a road follower or hitchhiker in another. It depends on where you’re going at the moment.

Are we out of big ideas in content and marketing? I don’t think we are. I do believe that we’re in a period of so much pressure to perform in ever shorter time frames that we often stifle our ideas. We follow the roads already paved instead of making new ones.

If you want to go somewhere no one else is going, make new roads, even wrong roads. Let’s go make some together.

Author: Robert Rose
As the Chief Strategy Officer of The Content Advisory, the exclusive education and consulting group of The Content Marketing Institute, Robert develops content and customer experience strategies for large enterprises such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Oracle, McCormick Spices, Capital One, and UPS. Robert’s book, Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing was called “a call to arms and a self-help guide for creating the experiences that consumers will fall in love with.” For the last three years, he’s co-hosted the podcast This Old Marketing, with Joe Pulizzi. It’s frequently a top 20 marketing podcast on iTunes and is downloaded more than a million times every year, in 100 countries around the world.