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Having Faith in Ideas Pays Off

By Paul Earle, Executive Director at Farmhouse Innovation and New Ventures at Leo Burnett 

It was the longest short flight ever.

I vividly recall a frigid gray afternoon in February years ago in a former life, gazing out the window through the undercast as the frozen plains between Minneapolis and Chicago unfolded below, wondering if the company I had started, to which I had committed so much, had just been given the death sentence.

Earlier that day, the team and I pitched 10 ideas to senior executives at a major prospective customer. We were quite new at the time, so for us this was The Big Meeting (capital letters intended).A good result could have catapulted us to scale instantly, but a bad one would mean real trouble, as the company represented “the market” for us.

We worked around the clock for weeks. We spent precious remaining cash on research. We were meticulously prepared, having gone through several rehearsals of a presentation that was both smart and passionate.

And they rejected everything.

At that particular moment, clinically speaking, the company was finished. Given that we were darned near broke, and a major player had just given our offering a resounding vote of no confidence, to continue operations was a bad business decision, on the facts of it. Yet we did anyway. And after pivoting a few times, we wound up creating real value.

What inspired us to keep pushing? Pride? Hatred of losing? Even absence of alternatives? Those were factors for sure, but the main driver was deep faith that our core idea had merit. We vowed to see it through, no matter what.

Faith. It is belief in the absence of proof. It is irrational, by definition. And it is absolutely required in order to achieve any real progress. If necessity is the mother of invention, then faith is its father.

“Faith,” of course, is a term that has deep roots in religion. The great contemporary theologian John Buchanan, summoning Kirkegaard and others before him, speaks often about the notion that all your reason, all your logic, can only take you so far. At some point, to achieve anything significant, you have to walk through a door without knowing what is on the other side. This is the origin of the notion of the “leap of faith.”

Even many of history’s most influential scientists, however, have recognized the existence of wonders of the world that could not possibly be explained by any grounding in reason or statistical construct. It is in the darkness—the unknown—where the real magic and mystery resides.

In an innovation setting, the role of faith in ideas is profound, even though the notion is more common to seminary schools than business schools. The latter commit much of their core curriculum to activities like data analysis, and the modeling of rational behavior. But in practice, a number of hugely successful modern creations were launched in the face of data that said they would fail! The Sony Walkman and the Mini Cooper are two examples. In my own journey today, my Farmhouse colleagues and I are having some initial success doing things that were, at best, vague hunches when we opened our doors not all that long ago. We had our share of cynics out there.   

There is a certain degree of confidence and even a sense of inevitability if you have unwavering faith that your idea is good, and that everything is going to be okay. One of my favorite meditations on the subject is Rudyard Kipling’s poem If, in which a father advises his son that he must to learn how to “meet with disaster,” and bravely carry on.

Kipling’s work inspired many great leaders, perhaps most notably Winston Churchill, and as such may have helped save the world.

Last month I was on a plane home, peering out through the undercast again. Fortunately, that particular business trip had gone well, and did not cause me to ponder another encounter with disaster! The moment got me thinking that what really matters in any great undertaking is faith: in ideas, in the ever-present possibility of a favorable outcome, in the inherent goodness of forces at play that are far bigger than we are, in the indeed irrational belief that something grand and beautiful that hasn’t been seen before is out there, somewhere.

May you all go forward, boldly, with deep and abiding faith in your ideas.


Thanksgiving 2014