Innovation and the Seven Deadly Sins

Ross McLean

SXSW is filled with hits and misses. Friday’s standout hit for me was Ross McLean’s presentation: “Will your new technology win? Ask a tree.” McLean is an EVP for a company called As you will see further down, you don’t really have to ask a tree, you just have to focus on the Seven Deadly Sins. Sounds simple enough.

In preparation for the presentation, McLean interviewed 48 people involved with emerging technologies, including developers, designers and marketers. All agreed that working in this space was an exciting although bumpy path. The scary fact is that 90% of all new startups fail. By studying the intersection of and interaction between people x ideas x technology, McLean hopes to improve the odds of predicting winners from losers.

In one question, Interviewees were asked how they typically predict if an idea is good or bad. Their responses in order of most prevalent method to least is listed here:

  • Personal reactions
  • Spreadability
  • Barriers
  • Behavior
  • Business dynamics
  • Human nature – is it fundamentally doing something that’s in my nature

McLean found it concerning that “personal reactions” bubbled to the top and offered American Idol as an example to state his case. Interviewees were asked if they honestly had thought American Idol would be as popular as it has become. Only 19% said they predicted this. The fundamental problem with personal reactions is that innovators are early adopters, whereas the audiences they are developing for typically are the big majority. To get past the tipping point, the innovation has to be appealing for the early to late majority.

A great quote by Ross Unger nails the sentiment:

“We desperately want to work in the future. And we need to be careful about that.”

Instead of using personal reactions as your guide, McLean suggested focusing on the human nature. This is also where his tree analogy comes into play. Basically the space is like a tree, with people being the trunk and branches, and the wind being the societal forces whipping the tree back and forth. The roots represent the human nature, which grows slowly and are protected from the wind. The human nature is so ingrained that it is almost impossible for societal forces to move them. So, focusing on primal human nature is the path for success. Specifically, he said, focus on ideas that tap into any of The Seven Deadly Sins, since they are at the core of human nature.

Seven Deadly Sins (and examples)

  • Wrath (shooter games)
  • Vanity: (Klout)
  • Pride:
  • Greed: (online gambling)
  • Gluttony: (
  • Lust: (porn)
  • Sloth: (everything)

McLean emphasized sloth. He said the genius of human nature is we are lazy. We became brilliant at figuring out how to avoid doing stuff by inventing something to do it for us.

McLean concluded the presentation with five keys to success:

  1. Think about roots first: human nature, human need or desire
  2. When we look at behavior, be careful because current behavior is constrained
  3. Go broad and deep into human nature.
  4. Remember we are similar creatures than we would like to think. Appeal to basics. Give us super powers through technology.
  5. Don’t make guesses about human nature if you don’t have to.

One thought on “Innovation and the Seven Deadly Sins

  1. Thanks for the great write-up, Claus. I’m thrilled that you got something useful my presentation!

    The one thing that I would add to your post is to make sure to consider the seven deadly sins, but make sure that you look at and leverage the good side of human nature as well. There are a lot of powerful elements of human nature like reciprocation and group affiliation that drive much of our behavior.

    People have a deep-seated drive to share, help each other out, and belong to groups with similar goals and philosophies as well. Thanks again.

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