Insights | By Howard Tiersky
Which Ideas Are the Good Ones?
Ideas are everywhere. They can come from your team, your customers, consultants, competitors, executives, and from your own imagination.
Hopefully, you have a system in place for soliciting and capturing ideas from every conceivable source. Why? One of the most quoted statements on this topic is from Linus Pauling, who declared, “The best way to get a good idea is to have a lot of ideas. You can't have good ideas unless you have lots of ideas and throw the bad ones away." Given that Pauling won not one but two Nobel prizes, let’s assume he knows a thing or two about innovation, and that this is an accurate insight. But even still, it begs a critical question — how do you know which ideas are the "good ones?" And here's a hint, it's not based on the seniority of the person who created the idea, no matter how confident he or she is.
What is the definition of a good idea?
First of all, in order to evaluate the "goodness" of an idea we have to have some clarity around what we are trying to achieve. Handing out leaflets on the corner might be a good idea if you are trying to fill a comedy club, perhaps not so much if you are looking for a job as the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Usually, the ideas we generate in business are to achieve one of a defined number of business objective, relating to increasing revenue, decreasing costs, increasing customer loyalty, or other similar goals. An idea may also need to exist within a realm of constraints. If you have a marketing budget of $10k, the idea of a Super Bowl ad is probably not terribly useful. So ultimately, a "good" idea is one that is likely to drive the outcome that you are seeking, and is achievable within the constraints you need to operate under. And the best idea is whichever of the "good" ideas deliver the most result for the lowest cost/effort. Although, in truth you don’t usually need to find the "best" idea, and sometimes it’s not worth it. Simply finding a set of "good" ideas that you can get into the marketplace rapidly is usually a better strategy than a protracted search for the truly best idea.
And by the way, sometimes you are given ideas that are "cool", but there is no clear business outcome they can be easily connected to. Be careful to neither be romanced by these ideas nor be too quick to discard them. If an idea seems appealing, it may be because you intuitively feel that it does have the potential to drive business results, you just haven't figured out how yet. Review the superset of business goals and consider whether the idea, or variations on it, might connect to one or more of your goals. If so, then you know how to measure "good" for that idea. If not, well then those ideas with no clear business benefit should form the first level of what will ultimately be a large pile of discarded ideas.
How do you measure ideas to see if they are "good"?
Once we understand the target — what defines "good" — we need a tool to measure whether or not a given idea is good. How do we do that? Here is a model that we use at FROM. We look at 4 aspects of the idea:
- Business Model
- Technical Feasibility, Risk & Effort
- Operational Feasibility, Risk & Effort
Let’s look at each of these.
In the vast majority of cases, the likelihood of an idea with potential business benefit achieving its promise is linked to human behavior. Will customers buy it? Will website visitors use it? Will employees follow the new process? The specifics will vary by idea, but few ideas are going to succeed if people don't want them.
How do we determine this? Generally via research. In fact, one of the greatest sources of inspiration for ideas in the first place in our work for clients is usually work with the clients’ customers and employees. When we understand what their unmet needs are, we can start by creating ideas that are at least conceived as a solution to a known problem. Of course, coming up with an idea intended to solve a known problem is not necessarily the same as coming up with a solution that works for people, which is why we prototype. Our goal is typically a series of rapid rounds of research where we create rapid prototypes of the idea, test them with users to see the reaction, and iterate until we either have something that we believe will be adopted, or we drop the idea and move onto the next one. This process has a fantastically high rate of success, and it’s quick and inexpensive. It's quite amazing actually how frequently this type of simple prototype/test/iterate process is not followed in the enterprise.
Once we have determined that an idea is likely to be adopted by users, we have to consider another question — is this a good business investment? It’s quite possible to invest in something customers love, and they might use it, but its impact on the "bottom line" is nowhere near the cost of building and maintaining the capability. In this step, we leverage insights from our adoption research to attempt to roughly size the level of adoption and forecast the actual business impact. Often, a given idea may create value in several different categories, and these can then be forecasted and added together. For example, if a bookstore adds a café, that can generate its own revenue from the sale of food, might bring additional customers off the street who might buy a book, and who knows, perhaps there are opportunities to make sponsorship deals for items sold in the café. These potential benefits need to be forecasted and then balanced against the initial "build out" cost of the idea and its ongoing operating and marketing costs. Given that most revenue forecasts tend to be somewhat "optimistic", you probably want to most seriously consider ideas where the forecast looks very strong, giving you a bit of "wiggle room" if you under-deliver initially.
By the way, this process can be very healthy for ideas that "fail" the business case test, because those ideas can go one of two ways. They can either go straight to the "reject" pile, OR you can send them back for more work — to find ways to either simplify the idea to reduce its cost, improve adoption, or find more ways to monetize it.
Technical Feasibility, Risk & Effort
That teleportation idea passed both the adoption and business model checkpoints, but can we really build it? At this stage, we determine whether it can actually be built. If it doesn’t require any novel technology or pose any substantial technical risk, then great, that’s an easy analysis. If it does pose technical challenges, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because if it’s a successful idea and we have to overcome some challenges in order to bring it to life, that potentially creates a competitive barrier that prevents others from easily copying our innovation. The solution that we conceive to the challenge might be patentable. For example, consider how Google solved the technical challenge of how to rank web pages more effectively, and that competitive barrier has been very important to their success.
When there is uncertainty about the level of feasibility and risk associated with an idea that seems otherwise promising, that is often a good time to do a technical "proof of concept" to attempt to build out a small "vertical slice" of the functionality to get a sense as to difficulty, effectiveness, and performance. Based on preliminary results, you can determine whether to persevere or to look for greener pastures.
Operational Feasibility, Risk & Effort
Somewhat similar to technical feasibility is operational feasibility. A simple example would be, a hotel could add a button to its app that says, "bring me more towels," and anytime the button is pushed a message gets sent to housekeeping telling them the room number to bring towels. Will people use this (adoption)? Probably. Does it have a good business case? Yes, because it differentiates the hotel, improves customer satisfaction, and costs very little to build. Is it technically challenging? Not at all. So should we do it? Well, if customers start pushing that button left and right and housekeeping is overwhelmed and can't keep up with the requests, then no, because the ultimate experience will be bad and will not achieve the business goals.
Interestingly, a few years back, we found in our work with FROM that technical feasibility was the biggest barrier to many "big ideas," but as enterprises have improved both their technology stacks and processes, many of those limitations have fallen away. But in parallel, more and more of the next generation ideas combine together the digital and real worlds in an integrated Omnichannel experience, making the operational component the next frontier.
Whether it’s ordering online and picking up in the store, or requesting Saturday delivery for a package, or personalizing a website based on experiences from other channels, operational feasibility usually needs to be considered. And by the way, one flavor of operational feasibility is also the legal and regulatory angle. If you can do it, but it’s not legal, well that's clearly not operationally feasible. At FROM, for example, we work on a lot of projects targeting family audiences that include children. Regulations like the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, while wonderful in that they protect kids from harmful tactics, also sometimes prevent us from personalizing experiences for younger audiences in the way we know they'd most enjoy.
Is that it?
If an idea passes all four stages, does that mean it will be successful? Not at all. It just means that it’s a good idea. Many good or even great ideas fail in the execution. You need great UX/CX, engineering, visual design, marketing, and probably other skills depending on the nature of the idea to execute it successfully. But, if you give your execution teams ideas that have been pre-vetted as good ideas, you are setting them up for success once they execute effectively!