How often can you make a crazy idea work?

Today is April 26 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “can you make a crazy idea work?” Navigating the chaos will sometimes challenge you to do something others might consider crazy. This ‘crazy’ strategy is uncommon, strange, and misunderstood. The etymology of the word crazy stems from the late 16th century (in sense ‘full of cracks’): from craze; perhaps of Scandinavian origin and related to Swedish krasa ‘crunch.’ Can you tolerate people viewing your idea as one ‘full of cracks?’ Are you able to see how people might view your idea as crazy? If navigating the chaos required you to make a crazy idea work, could you do it? Jimmy Wales, Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin did.

Wales left graduate school before completing a PhD to take a job in finance and later worked as the research director of a Chicago futures and options firm. In 1996, he founded the web portal Bomis, a male-oriented web portal featuring entertainment and adult content, with two partners.

Although Bomis struggled to make money, it did provide him with the funding he needed to pursue his idea for an online encyclopedia. In March 2000, along with Larry Sanger, Wales launched a peer-reviewed, open-content encyclopedia called Nupedia. Nupedia was to have expert-written entries on a variety of topics and attract enough viewers that would allow advertising to be placed alongside the entries. Due to an arduous peer-review process, however, Nupedia failed to achieve any level of growth and published just 24 articles. To help facilitate its growth and simplify the submission process, Wales and Sanger implemented a new tool called a wiki that programmer Ben Kovitz introduced to them in January 2001. Wiki stems from Hawaiian wiki wiki ‘very quick.’

This new tool would revolutionize the level of collaboration possible for anyone with Internet access around the globe. When Nupedia’s experts rejected the wiki for fear that mixing amateur content with professionally researched material would compromise the integrity of Nupedia’s information and damage the credibility, Wales and Sanger labeled the new project “Wikipedia” and went live on its own domain five days after its creation. In a 2006 TED talk Wales said that Wikipedia began with a very radical idea and that was for “all of us to imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.”

As a radical and innovative global collaboration platform Wikipedia now has over 290 editions with the English Wikipedia having the largest collection of articles reaching over six million.

A pair of Swedish inventors, Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin, know all too well how to make a crazy idea work since they designed the invisible bicycle helmet known as the Hövding. Developed over the course off eight years, the Hövding is also known as the world's first airbag bicycle helmet as it is stored in a decorative pouch worn around a rider’s neck. When a rider crashes, a helium canister inflates the nylon hood within milliseconds. Hövding started out in 2005 as a master’s thesis by the two founders who were studying Industrial Design at the University of Lund. Haupt and Alstin had the idea of developing a new type of cycle helmet in response to the introduction of a law on mandatory helmet use for children up to the age of 15 in Sweden.

To design their invisible helmet, Haupt and Alstin collaborated with a variety of experts in various fields to create an innovative set of sensors that trigger the helmet to inflate out of its pouch upon a bicycle’s impact. They added sensors to the Hövding that analyzed movement patterns 200 times a second to know when the rider is in a real crash. Normal movements made by riders won’t trigger the Hövding. In 2006, Hövding won the Venture Cup, after which Hövding Sweden AB was founded. Haupt said, “We don’t like, as designers, to have this attitude that it’s people who need to change, instead of the product that needs to change. And that’s why we decided to see if we could improve them.”

By creating a whole new mind, they succeeded in creating a solution to the vanity aspect of wearing bicycle helmets. People want a product that leaves their hair intact. Their understanding of this vanity aspect helped the two innovators realize they “needed to really think new if we wanted to solve the problem.” Over 150 000 airbags for cyclists have been sold in over 15 countries and 5,017 people have Hövding to thank for protecting their head in bicycle accidents.

As stated on the Hövding web site “Continuing to believe in our vision and proving time and time again that the impossible is possible has given us the unique expertise that ultimately landed us several global patents. But our journey has only just begun, as we’ll never stop moving forward. All our employees share a motto that is at the heart of everything we do — At Hövding, we thrive on the impossible.”

English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead noted “every really new idea looks crazy at first.” People thought Wales was crazy to launch Wikipedia. People thought it was impossible to create an invisible bicycle helmet until Haupt and Alstin did it.

As you navigate the chaos, how often are you trying to make a crazy idea work?