The puzzle of ideas
The lightbulb. The aeroplane. The iPhone.
What’s the one thing they have in common?
They were all … great ideas. They all transformed the way we live. However, there’s something about ideas that’s puzzled us for generations.
How do you know a great idea before it takes off, before people are queuing around the block to buy what you’ve created? How do you know which ideas are worth your time, which ones you should invest in? And, how do you know which to abandon?
Getting the answer wrong can be costly. Getting it right – however – can be revolutionary, not just for the world, but for your pocket.
What connects the greatest creators?
The most successful businesses – and most successful people – come up with ideas regularly. They’re not afraid to experiment and get their best ideas out there.
Bestselling author, Stephen King, writes more words annually than some will in a lifetime. He publishes a new book almost every year – sometimes more – and has turned out many a hit that’s also made it into film, like The Green Mile and The Shining.
Picasso is considered the most prolific artist in history. According to the Guinness Book of Records, during his 75-year career, he produced 13,500 paintings as well as prints, engravings, illustrations, sculptures and ceramics. Picasso embraced numerous periods of art and turned paint into pounds. In fact, his full body of works has been valued at $788 million US dollars.
Madonna is one of the most successful female recording artists of all time. She’s innovative – and at times controversial – but seeks originality and never stands still. She’s embraced multiple modern-day eras of music and is a queen of reinvention.
Successful businesses also recognise the importance of coming up with new ideas regularly and embracing changing times.
Let’s take Toyota’s suggestion scheme, which invites fresh ideas from all its people. Allowing everyone to contribute – rather than a selected few at the top – has resulted in millions of suggestions. This increases the company’s brain power significantly when it comes to making improvements, solving quality issues, developing new features and – ultimately – increasing profits.
Quantity vs quality
Surely, it’s the quality of ideas that matters, not so much the quantity?
How about all of Stephen King’s books that haven’t been global hits? How about all of Picasso’s creations that no one knows about? How about all of Madonna’s songs that have not topped the charts?
Quality is the most important. But it’s quantity that increases the chance that a quality idea will be uncovered. In short, quantity is the precursor to quality.
Think about it, if you have an ocean full of ideas, rather than a pond with just a few, the chances of encountering something remarkable are increased.
There is always the exception. The one hit wonders. The miraculous bestsellers. The surprising fads. But, they generally rely on luck, not strategy.
The problem is, luck is never guaranteed. It’s a gamble. Banking on luck is like playing business roulette with your money and time. Whereas strategy can be shaped and influenced. You can make it happen.
The ocean of ideas – though – is vast. So, it’s important to know where to look to find the pearls. That’s why you need to have a great idea generation system.
First, though, you need to know which type of idea you’re looking for.
The five types of idea
- Iterative ideas
Iterative ideas are the most common. They build on something that exists already.
Iterative ideas enable continuous improvement. Things keep getting better – like how the video capabilities of a smartphone have transformed over the years from pixelated to cinematic.
Iterative ideas can also be spin-offs, like new features, add-ons and variations.
2. Alternative ideas
Alternative ideas involve a new way of approaching something someone else is doing, ideally to improve on it.
This is where the concept of ‘second but better’ comes from. The first mover in the market has a great opportunity but also takes all the risks.
Competitors have the advantage of being able to observe this playing out. As a result, they benefit from free learning. They can use this to develop alternative ideas to challenge – and perhaps topple – the leader.
3. Transfer ideas
Transfer ideas involve adapting technologies, products and services in one industry, for a new market.
For example, right now, battery technologies from the automotive industry are being developed for medical drones and luxury air taxis.
4. Revolutionary ideas
The most common sorts of idea to come to mind are revolutionary ideas.
But, revolutionary ideas are actually the most rare.
That’s because it’s hard to invent something totally new that doesn’t somehow build on something pre-existing. That’s why revolutionary ideas tend to make history. Think of the first lightbulb, television set and so on.
5. Delusional ideas
Who wants to end up with delusional ideas?
This type of idea may be so idealistic that it couldn’t work in practice – at least not yet – or it may be solving a problem for which there just isn’t a large enough market to make it viable.
This can be particularly hard to accept if a lot of time and money has gone into developing the idea.
It may just be that the market isn’t ready. Sometimes this can be addressed, other times it’s a case of waiting or diverting efforts elsewhere.
Arguably, Leonardo da Vinci’s concepts for a ‘flying machine’ would have been delusional at the time. But, looking back, they seem visionary because his ideas were ahead of the technological capabilities of the renaissance era.
Delusional ideas are not necessarily bad.
They can stretch our perceptions of what’s potentially possible and inspire another, average idea to be pushed until it’s exceptional.
Five stages to a brilliant idea
What’s the best way to come up with ideas and decide if there’s a market for it? There are five stages to a great idea generation system…
- Sling your ideas
Throw as many ideas onto a whiteboard, wall or notebook.
You can do this on your own but it’s even better done as a group because your ideas will naturally build on each other.
Challenge yourself to come up with as many as possible without judging them. Judging stifles creativity. So, whether your ideas feel good, bad, brilliant or delusional, get them all out there.
You don’t have to do this all in one go. You could get into the habit of coming up with a few ideas every week.
- Sort your ideas
Go through your ideas asking yourself, which of them could work? Which align with your strategy? Which may be of interest to your customers? Which do you have the time, money and capabilities to develop?
- Stretch and strengthen your ideas
Use your biggest ideas to push all the other ones.
Think beyond what’s possible right now to what you could make possible with the right enablers. What would make your ideas stronger? Is research needed? Are trials required?
Think of this stage as your ‘ideas lab’.
- Share your ideas
Some businesses baulk at the idea of sharing their ideas too soon. But if you don’t talk to your potential customers, get their feedback and get them to experiment with your concepts early, the project could become riskier.
This is because you could bring something to market that doesn’t work for your customers. Take legal advice on the steps you can take to protect your intellectual property while benefitting from customer input.
As much as you can, experiment with your customers rather than with assumptions. Then, use their feedback to refine your ideas.
- Sign off, shelve or shut down your ideas
At the final stage, there are three options…
- Hopefully, having come this far, and carried out a thorough evaluation, you can sign off your ideas and get them ready to sell.
- But if they’re not working, you could shelve your ideas for now and review them later in the light of future market developments.
- Or, you could shut down your ideas completely and transfer your creative energies to those with greater potential.
Are there ever guarantees?
To answer this, let’s go back to the original question: How do you know which ideas are worth your time, which ones you should invest in? And how do you know which to abandon?
There is no magic answer. No guarantees. But, if your follow these five stages from initial idea to market ready, you maximise your chances of success, particularly if you involve customers in the development because, ultimately, you want them to buy.
Leaders in innovation are prolific creators. They’re constantly coming up with ideas, experimenting with them and trying them out with customers. This enables them to create new opportunities every day.
And, if an idea doesn’t work out?
Not all is lost. Mistakes and failures are the most valuable business lessons. What matters is how you recover from them and use them to make the future better.
When you make idea generation and continual innovation a habit, you increase your chances of having a hit on your hands and accelerating your business success.
- Both quantity and quality are important when it comes to ideas. Having an ocean of ideas increases your chances of finding a pearl.
- To find the pearls, ideas should be run through the five-stage idea generation system to ensure you’ve fully evaluated their potential for the market.
- Involve your customers as early as you can, ensuring the right legal protection when required. You are creating solutions for customers and you want to maximise the chance they’ll buy.