Seth Godin recently published a blog post about a concept called “idea tourism.” In it, he warns that we can’t just be spectators when we come in contact with big ideas that could potentially transform our businesses. Rather than superfically reading about this big idea, I decided to dig deeper into it, to understand what it really means to you and I.

Seth Godin recently published a blog post about a concept called “idea tourism.” In it, he warns that we can’t just be spectators when we come in contact with big ideas that could potentially transform our businesses. We need to get involved, to try them on for size, to be changed by the experience of exploring them – in much the same way that a visit to China or Paris can be a life-changing experience – in order to truly understand their implications.

It’s easy to stand off at a distance and look at a trend like social media, and dismiss it as nothing more than a fad. In doing so, we inevitably sell ourselves and our organizations short. It turns out the big idea we so easily tossed aside as much ado about nothing is much more nuanced than we could have imagined. But you’ll never know that by just doing a “drive by” of it. You need to work with it, experiment with it and extract lessons from it in order to understand its potentially far-reaching strategic implications. These implications, in other words, are not visible to the casual observer, the “drive-by tourist.”

Luddites vs. visionaries

I’m reminded of the owner of an ad agency I worked for years ago, several years before ubiquitous e-mail standards emerged. It was already possible to send messages within the walled communities of AOL and Compuserve. To prove to the marketing manager of a prospective client that he could e-mail sales PowerPoints to his regional managers via Compuserve, I created a brief presentation and e-mailed it to him using that medium – proving that it WAS not only possible, but easy to do. He was amazed, and so were the other senior executives of his company. The owner of the ad agency, however, was not amused. His reaction went something like this:

“We don’t want you f**king around with the Internet. That’s not your job. If we get a client who wants to do something on the Internet, we’ll get smart on it really fast and we’ll do it for them!”

Wrong-headed, but a great example of idea tourism.

With any new technology, competitive advantage comes by understanding its strategic implications before anyone else, experimenting and prototyping concepts early and often, and figuring out how to deliver exceptional value using the new tool. The big idea may not look very impressive in its early stages, but it takes a special mindset – a creative outlook – to see what it is likely to become in the years ahead, and how to leverage a first-mover advantage from the deep, colorful perspective you’ve gained by deeply involving yourself in the big idea.

How should the agency have approached the Internet? By experimenting and learning aggressively, so it could offer a unique and very valuable set of services to its clients. Realistically, there is no “learn fast” mode when it comes to big ideas. There’s only one way to truly understand them, and that’s to dive in deep.

What happened with me and the Luddite ad agency owner? I left that company soon after to work for a trade association with a president who had an inkling that the web would be the future of association communications. He was right, of course, and the association’s website went on to be one of the first and best in the industry. Not only that, but we provided extensive educational resources to our member companies. Having blazed the trail, we were in a unique position to educate our members about how they could do the same. It was an amazing time!

The lesson of this little story is simple: No vision leads to idea tourism. Seeing but not really seeing. Not being challenged or changed by the big idea. Putting on blinders and “sticking to our core business.” Conversely, vision and open-mindedness tends to lead to change, to big opportunities, and usually to a more profitable and exciting future.

Idea tourism vs. the “open” future

Godin points out that more ideas are “offering visitation rights than ever before.” His keen observation aligns with the fact that more change is being driven by open innovation – the idea that your organization can’t do everything itself, and that the best ideas may lie somewhere outside of your company’s boundaries. To get access to these big ideas, you must partner with other firms with cultures and values different than your own. No room for superficial “tourism” here – you need to dig in deep, first building trust for your innovation efforts internally, and then coming to a meeting of the minds with your idea partners, including such concepts as licensing, intellectual property issues, codevelopment, crowdsourcing and more.

More ideas being shared via channels like social media, at increasing velocity. Innovation is being increasingly driven by communities, not walled-off, proprietary R&D departments within organizations. Think Wikipedia, (news service mentioned in the video) and Linux, not Bell Labs or IBM Skunk Works. This trend is dramatized in a YouTube video that explores the trends and visible edges of what innovation will become in the 21st century innovation. It’s a compelling vision, and I strongly urge you to check it out.

“Empathizing with ideas”

Godin concludes with the concept of “empathizing with ideas.” Interesting concept. Most of us have empathized with other people, but how do you empathize with something as ethereal as an idea? By cultivating an openness to it. An explorer’s mindset, a willingness to look beneath the surface and ask lots of questions, while minimizing your pre-conceived notions of “what it all means.”. An openness to being changed, even transformed, by what we’ve seen and learned on our explorations, and having the courage to share what you’ve learned with others.

Empathizing with an idea? Hell, yes! It’s going to be an increasingly important skill in the years ahead, driven by intensifying global competition, shrinking margins, the rise of game-changers like open innovation and a dozen other factors.

In closing, a challenge

What big idea have you overlooked? Social media? Open innovation? Business model innovation? Crowdsourcing? It’s time to take another look. Sorry, no “drive-by tourism” allowed. it’s time to get your hands dirty.