'Game of Thrones' Author George R. R. Martin on What Makes Ideas Work
If you haven't heard of George R. R. Martin's books, you've certainly heard of the popular television series faithfully based on them: Game of Thrones, now in its third season on HBO, has most of the nation waiting with bated breath for Sunday night, even if work or school awaits the next morning.
In a recent interview with Rolling Stone's Mikal Gilmore, Martin revealed his beliefs about where good ideas come from and what makes them work:
Ideas are cheap. I have more ideas now than I could ever write up. To my mind, it's the execution that is all-important. I'm proud of my work, but I don't know if I'd ever claim it's enormously original. You look at Shakespeare, who borrowed all of his plots. In A Song of Ice and Fire, I take stuff from the Wars of the Roses and other fantasy things, and all these things work around in my head and somehow they jell into what I hope is uniquely my own.
Interestingly, Martin stresses two principles of idea generation that have relevant takeaways for business leaders:
1. Ideas, in and of themselves, are cheap. Execution is what matters.
2. He is not particularly concerned with the originality of the idea, noting that even Shakespeare largely borrowed his story ideas from other sources.
Martin's stance reminded me of a 2001 profile I wrote of a North Carolina consultancy called Best Practices. Their modus operandi is finding good business ideas from eclectic sources, then making them clearer and more actionable--and teaching them to their clients.
In fact, founder and CEO Chris Bogan coauthored a book called Benchmarking for Best Practices, a major premise of which was that companies need to do a better job of borrowing effective management and operations methods from outside sources. In other words, stop putting so much pressure on yourself to originate all the ideas. Instead, you can improve your own practices by replicating what's worked at highly successful companies.
A key quote from the book: "Performance improvement is blind to the lineage of good ideas."
Put another way: In business, the only thing that matters with an idea is whether it improves your performance.
Where the idea originally came from is strictly academic.
For a recent example, look no further than the strategy of Rocket Internet, a red-hot incubator based in Berlin. As Mark Scott points out in his recent New York Times profile of the seven-year-old company, Rocket Internet's entire premise is borrowing business models that have already proven effective:
Rocket Internet has turned the usual business model for technology companies on its head, compiling a team of high-flying finance and management specialists and arming them with the money they need to mimic already successful Internet companies--applying these proven ideas in other countries, often in emerging markets. Since starting in 2007, Rocket has backed about 75 start-ups in more than 50 countries that now generate more than $3 billion in annual revenue and employ about 25,000 people.
It's plain to see that Rocket Internet is "over" the concept of originality, a mentality that, Scott writes, "stands in sharp contrast with the ethos that dominates Silicon Valley, where originality is perceived as the main currency for successful startups."
Of course, if you have an original idea--whether it's for a business model or a management practice--no one is saying that you should scrap it, or become indifferent to protecting it through patents and other intellectual property measures. But what Martin, Bogan, and Rocket Internet demonstrate is that audiences and customers aren't evaluating programs and products by their originality quotients.
Sunday nights are hard enough as it is.