Cultivating Good Ideas

Where do good ideas come from?

You may have heard the phrase, ‘success is 99% failure’. If not then it’s not too hard to convince yourself that nothing successful just happens (not much at least). There will have been a tonne of hard work and a number of decisions made, both right and wrong, that lead to taking an idea from just an idea, to something successful.

But what if a 'good idea' isn't destined for greatness? We have this belief that persistence will always pay off and in many walks of life this may well be the case. For innovation though? Not so much. In fact, we see the opposite effect in that the longer we persist with an idea that just doesn't have what it takes, the greater the risk. Time, money and resources that could be better spent on the good ideas, simply go to waste. This is sometimes called the sunk-cost fallacy.

So the obvious take away from this is that we want need to fail fast! We need to seek and destroy bad ideas early so that we can devote more of our time to the good ideas. That’s not to say that having many ideas that turn out to be bad ones is a bad thing though. It’s far better to have a hundred ideas that all fail, but fail fast, than to have none at all; with each failure we learn something new and we can improve.

Fortunately, there are a number of techniques that we can apply that can help us to fail fast and generate good ideas.

Ask ‘Is this a solution with no problem?’

When someone comes up with an idea, the idea generally comes in the form of a solution. There should always be a point however, where we need to step back and ask ourselves, “What is the problem that we are trying to solve?”. Really focus on the problem and then decide if it is something that can be or needs to be solved.

There are generally 3 answers to this:

  1. The ‘problem’ isn't actually a problem. As it happens, we see a problem that just doesn't exist.
  2. The problem exists but potential customers just don’t want a solution. Or it’s not enough of a problem that they are willing to pay for a solution.
  3. This problem does actually exist and customers want a solution.

This enables an idea to be terminated early on if necessary but also gives us more confidence that we have a good idea if we encounter answer 3.

Ask ‘Is this the only solution?’

Often, there are many solutions to the same problem; given that many ideas skip the problem and jump straight to a solution, we usually get fixated on this one proposed solution.

However, after working out what the actual problem is, we can then begin to explore many different solutions that hadn't even been considered beforehand. This is particularly pertinent when working as a team. Someone may bring a different perspective that completely changes the way that we all think of solving the problem.

It’s great if you can come up with good ideas; it’s even better if you can also see good ideas in the work of other people.

Demand data!

Once we have a number of possible solutions, we need something more concrete before moving forward. Come up with small, data-driven experiments that can give high customer feedback with the minimum possible investment. That may sound like a bit of an oxymoron but it’s really quite simple. One of the best ways to get feedback from a potential customer is to speak to them. Make a Facebook status or tweet about it and take note of the responses. Even better, physically go outside and talk to people. All of these things take minimal effort and all it takes is 10-20 responses to find out that actually, that idea that we thought was great, really isn't. Just try and avoid asking friends and family; they tend to always think you’re onto something big!

Take a look at pretotyping to “make sure you are building the right it, before you build it right”.

Just make sure to avoid the trap of listening to what a customer asks for and then assuming to know what it is that they need. In his talk “Product Thru the Looking Glass” at QCon London 2015, Chris Matts gave the following example:

Imagine a customer asks for a tea bag. You may then hypothesise that they want a cup of tea. You could further hypothesise that they must be thirsty. However, when Chris gave the same talk in Bangalore, the overwhelming response from the audience as to why someone would want a tea bag was to stain a curry. Probably implying that they were in fact, hungry.

So be aware when making assumptions. Better yet, don’t assume.

Define success

Okay, so now we have this good idea! It definitely solves a problem that people want solved and everyone we’ve spoken to loves it and can’t wait to get their hands on it! So now we go away and build it, right?


How will we ever create a successful product if we don’t know what it means to be successful? We need to define some success metrics. And we definitely need to define them beforehand. For some reason, success metrics defined after the fact always seem to imply a product was a success. Weird, huh? So get the definition of success decided on early and it will give us a way to more truthfully analyse how we did. We may want ten thousand downloads in the first month, or five hundred people to sign up to the beta version. Whatever they are, set goals that are realistic for this particular case.

Frequently take a step back

Now that we have a good idea of what it is we are doing and where we want it to go, we’ll probably start working on it. However, we need to remember to stop and re-evaluate often to ensure that the customers’ needs haven’t changed, or that we haven’t gone off in an unintended direction.

It’s easy to knuckle down and keep on building something without stopping to test where we are at now. The same principle of failing fast is still just as important at this late stage to prevent us going off on tangents.


Don’t be afraid to abort!

Whilst re-evaluating, we may find that the problem no longer exists or that someone else has been quicker to the market. All kinds of reasons could mean that what was once a great idea has now become… not so great. And as I said before, the longer we persist with a bad idea, the greater the risk and the greater the cost. Again, try not to become a victim of the sunk-cost fallacy.

So although it may be a tough call to abort at this point, the cost of continuing will be greater.

Inspiration for this blog post came from Melissa Perri’s (@lissijean) talk, “The Bad Idea Terminator”, at QCon London 2015.

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