Ideas are a Dime a Dozen


I know: ideas are a dime a dozen (or perhaps cheaper with inflation these days). Yet the process of creating, nurturing, and executing on ideas is one of the most critical tasks we do. Getting ideas from start to finish (from inspiration to the point of execution) faster means that you can choose from more of them and learn faster. This is a simple list to help you start this process to create ideas and then decide which ones to act on.

You might use this process to decide on a new startup or product idea, to imagine what your ideal customer might want, or simply to rank a list of initiatives you’d like to try when resources are not infinite (that is to say, you should be doing this all the time 😉

Getting started: get inspired

Getting inspired might be the hardest part to getting started with a project. There are a million and one tasks that get in your way and it’s hard to focus on the task at hand and give it the mental space it deserves.

How do you gain a sense of wonder? Start with the things that matter to you. It could be as simple as recognizing themes in what you do every day. It could be a place you love to go or an activity you engage in. Or it could be a nagging sense that you keep running into the same problem over and over.

Then draw your solutions on a clean sheet of paper. If you prefer to use a whiteboard, that’s cool too – just take a picture of each when you’re done. Just do this in a non-electronic format: doodling or drawing opens up important creative areas of your brain.

Generate Solutions

Great! Now that you’ve thought of an area where you’d like to generate ideas, make a huge list. The longer, the better. If it helps pick a ridiculous number of ideas, like 100. Creating the ideas is more important than filtering them or thinking about why they will or won’t work.

If you think of the ideal person who would benefit from this idea and why they would use it, that’s great! And if that person doesn’t come to mind, write the idea down anyway.

Capture The Ideas

Now, arrange these ideas into a format that makes sense for another person. A good format might be a spreadsheet where you list:

  • A short summary of the idea
  • A type of benefit (e.g. save time, organize information, gain fitness)
  • A tangible goal – this should be an expression of the benefit, e.g. “Never forget to pick the kids up from an activity again”
  • A substitute – if the person didn’t use this idea, what would they use to get this done now? (The answer might be “nothing” or “duh. This is obvious”)
  • How frequently does the person do this activity?
  • Do they spend any money on this task now?
  • A ranking of 1 (Love It!), 2 (ok), or 3 (this idea is on the list but I don’t like it right now)

Note: use a list to organize your thinking 

Capturing the ideas is mostly an exercise to help you make a first cut and see if the ideas you generated previously resonate with you. Keeping them on the list even if they are sort of lame is important to remind you of your prior thinking.

Now, Sift the Ideas and Rank

There is a sad truth: you cannot complete all of your ideas in the time you have available. What you should do at this point is pick the best ones and start the process of really working on them to see whether they are good enough in the real world to pursue.

First, check the ideas that you said were really awesome and pick the top 5 or 10. If you only have a few top ideas or if you have a lot, find the one you like least in this group and move it to a “2 – ok”. Now take one of the ideas in the OK group and figure out a way to love that idea and move it up to “1- love it!”

Get Stuff Done

Now, go act on one of the best ideas. Get something done, go and do work for a limited amount of time, and then come back to your idea list. Knowing how long you’ll need to try to get results really depends upon the tangible goal.

Your interim goal might be conversation-based and should be quantified, like talk to 20 customers and get feedback using a 6 question survey that I need to design. And to get to that goal you might have to identify a larger input goal, like contact enough customers to generate 20 conversations in 7 days.

When you generate results from testing your initial ideas, you’ll have better feedback to evaluate whether they are immediate successes or need additional feedback. And that process of iterating through your ideas will also inform your opinion on whether this is a “good idea” or whether it should be stacked lower on your idea list.

Generating, refining, and testing your ideas is a practice and a skill. Improving your idea process is critical to being a better decision-maker – and fun too!

Today, I met a customer face to face

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photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/joeshlabotnik/

Websites are inherently anonymous. I don’t mean unknowable in the absolute sense of the word, but rather that when your first interaction with a customer is through email you can lose sight of that person’s humanity. When you talk to them on the phone things become a bit more real. And when you meet with them in person, you see them both as a customer and as a person. 

In the words of Paul Graham, we need to do things that don’t scale. It doesn’t make any sense to talk to a single customer at scale. Except that the lessons you learn from any conversation do scale, and can be applied to your business. When things are starting, almost any customer is the most precious resource in the world. You can’t learn about their frustration, their success, and their failures until you talk to them and see the ways in which they react.

Today I met with a customer and we shared time over coffee. He learned a little bit more about the business I’m building and I learned more about his business. We both became a bit more human and continued building a relationship that started when I tried to fix a problem that happened with his order. I thought I knew a lot about his problem, and I learned new things about the solution and the problem when I spoke with him today.

Meeting a customer totally changed my day today. I left our meeting with great new ideas and a renewed sense that helping people can really matter. Whether the effort is small or large, think about the person on the other end of the conversation. When you’re sending an email, thinking about a feature, or just wondering: “what would make the customer have a good day?” you can use that experience as a guide for your next face to face customer meeting.

Now, generate 100 ideas

iguanadon

When I was in drawing class in college, my professor asked us to make 100 drawings. “Why would we want to make throwaway drawings?” we asked. The answer he gave stuck with me: “because you don’t know which ones are the good ones until you look back.”

A similar problem affects idea generation – which ones are any good? If you start with a framework for generating the ideas, then develop a criteria for evaluating and filtering them, and finally create a measurement or objective outcome to see the results, you have a pretty interesting idea funnel. Don’t worry just yet whether the ideas are any good: just make more.

The first step is to make a lot of ideas. In e my experience, a throwaway method is best: whiteboard, post it note, or freehand list. Because I am very visual I need to see the idea rather than just type it out. So the first step is to fill a whiteboard 😉

After you generate the ideas, sorting them and filtering them is a lot easier with a tool. Some people like more post-it’s and a physical Agile board. I like using a spreadsheet for this purpose because it’s easy to sort and move the data around.

Finally when you stack rank the list of ideas, it’s time to figure out what you want to get our of them, how you will instrument that progress, and how you will measure your success.

Some of your ideas will be lousy, and some will be quite good – just remember to generate enough of them so that the process kicks into play. You won’t be able to get a great idea with five candidates, but there are probably five great ideas candidates in your list of 100.

3 Counter-intuitive ways to use Pinterest

Build a board around an idea

Pinterest is an addictive, visually-oriented way to highlight ideas, arrange and gather images, and understand what memes, colors, and things appeal to your friends and to the marketplace as a whole.

You might be tempted to just “PIN. ALL THE THINGS” and spend lots of time endlessly scrolling the service, and here are three ways you can use Pinterest to find information in new and different ways.

1. search for a concept, not just a person or a thing

Pinterest allows you to search for ideas in addition to people or things. Try searching for something abstract, like freedom and see what you find. You’ll find like-minded individuals (or not-so-like-minded individuals) and people who have expressed your idea in different ways.

2. Find the people who are talking about a meme or a thing

When you’re interested in a certain topic, you may start to see it everywhere. I just started using a Standing Desk, so I used Pinterest to search for all mentions of standing desk to see if there were great setups to learn from and people who were interested in the topic

3. Set up a board to capture ideas on a topic

Pinterest isn’t necessarily set up to be an idea capture, but in a way grabbing pins to link to articles and notes that also happen to have appealing pictures is a perfect method of combining the visual simplicity of Pinterest with the power of Evernote or other note-taking methods.

How are you using Pinterest in an intuitive (or counter-intuitive) way?

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