Our 12 Step Idea Selection Process
Sure, you can wait until the night before going live, but it’d be wise to ask these questions earlier in the idea selection process.
The first key to success according to Ira Glass, producer of NPR’s This American Life and the podcast Serial, is to “Do a huge volume of work.”
The complete quote is actually “If you want to be original, the most important possible thing you could do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work”
I’ve lived by that for a while now.
And, I’ve been ridiculed for doing so by others under the assumption that if you want to do better work, you have to do less of it. An incorrectly assumed tradeoff as confirmed by Stanford Professor Robert Sutton:
“Original thinkers will come up with many ideas that are strange mutations, dead ends, and utter failures. The cost is worthwhile because they also generate a larger pool of ideas, especially novel ideas.” — Professor Sutton
Back when I had first read Glass’s quote, I wanted it to be true. Now, I accept it as fact.
The personal predicament is what follows this work: Idea selection.
Your work has created all these ideas, what should you do with them?
The efficient solution is to have a trusted selection process. An assessment that you submit each idea to. This process helps you select “winners” as you move from idea generation to idea selection and ultimately action.
I had an idea selection process, loosely, and was inconsistent with it mostly out of ignorance. I allowed my confirmation bias, having a preference and seeking out information supporting it while overlooking information that challenges it, to obstruct official assessments. Despite them being risky, I just wanted my bold ideas to be the best ones.
Now I know.
The opportunity today is to accelerate your journey to understand how dangerous confirmation bias is and provide you with a template to assess each of your ideas against during your selection process.
A trusted idea selection assessment
In writing this, I challenged my updated selection process with the teachings of others, digesting several published and respected works, to compile the most honest and thorough list.
What are you first to?
In The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, Al Reis and Jack Trout, argue in favor of being the leader. They don’t ask how a product is better than the competition but what is it the first of?
“Everyone talks about why their brand is better, but prospects have an open mind when it comes to categories. Everyone is interested in what’s new. Few people are interested in what’s better.” — Al Reis & Jack Trout
Being first is known as being a pioneer, and despite the challenges of leadership, pioneers have the first opportunity to be known as the default brand in a category. They have the opportunity to become the generic brand. Think Coke for the entire soda category. Reis and Trout go so far as to say “It’s better to be first, than just better,” a controversial statement according to Adam Grant, author of Originals: How non-conformists move the world, who champions settlers, those who come second, over pioneers.
Marketing researchers Peter Golder and Gerard Tellis authored a classic study that compared companies that were pioneers to settlers. The failure rates for pioneers were 47% while the failure rate for settlers was only 8%.
Why was the second wave experiencing success?
“Instead of conforming to the existing demand, settlers bide their time until they’re ready to introduce something new. They’re often slow to enter because they’re working on revolutionary products, services, or technologies within the category.” — Adam Grant
Above, Grant mentions category. This happens to agree with Reis and Trout whose second immutable law is that of category: If you can’t be the first in a category, set up a new category you can be first in.
Settlers may not be absolute firsts, but they have the benefit of iterating into an existing market that has proven demand. They still can claim a first because though they may be better than the pioneer, they’re introducing something new. That something new is what they are first to.
Uber was first to ride-sharing, Safr was first to ride-sharing for women. Bravus Brewing was the first craft non-alcoholic beer, Athletic Brewing Company was the first non-alcoholic craft IPA.
What word do you own?
The non-violent movement that overthrew the dictator Slobodan Milosevic and delivered democracy to Serbia credits their early success to their name, and what it means. Otpor! Means resistance. At the beginning of their movement members of Otpor! would spray paint their logo, a black fist, around the city of Belgrade, and soon passerby’s began to recognize the logo as Otpor!’s and understood this was a symbol of resistance. Soon, people began trusting they weren’t alone in wanting change.
Reis and Trout break down why this worked in Serbia with their Law of Focus:
“The most powerful concept in marketing is owning a word in the prospects’ mind. When selecting a word choose your word wisely, make it easy and cool, and especially don’t choose someone else’s words because the law of exclusivity says two companies cannot own the same word.” — Al Reis & Jack Trout
Let’s try it out.
Which brands come to mind when you read Soda, Sports Drink, Fast Food?
Coke, Gatorade, McDonalds.
Now, figure out how to get your name on this level of the list.
Is what you’re creating practical?
Harvard psychologist Teresa Amabile in Originals explains that “To be successfully original, an invention needs to be new — but it also has to be practical.”
Well, how do you define practicality?
Is this likely to succeed or be effective in real circumstances?
Is this concerned with the actual doing or use of something rather than with theory and ideas?
But, there is more to consider, like the chicken or the egg.
The chicken or the egg
I’m going to ask you a fair and straight forward question: Is what you’re building a solution to an existing problem?
In Originals Grant uses the example of the Segway. The Segway was an exciting and noble innovation, but it didn’t solve an existing problem. Years later E-bikes ended up solving the problem. Without knowing if the chicken or the egg came first, we can extrapolate we need a problem before a solution. This linear observation provides the question: Is what you’ve created solving a problem that you found first?
The Segway also had another problem: it wasn’t practical.
However, if your product does seem practical, and it solves a problem that existed before you arrived, let’s test if it will be adopted by the masses.
How radical of a change to behavior are you asking people to make?
Staying on the Segway, Randy Komisar, co-founder of Claris, former CEO of Lucas Arts Entertainment, and “virtual CEO” of TiVo said of the Segway “It’s a huge change of behavior at a very high expense with limited value beyond the wow factor for anybody with two feet.” Harsh, but necessary.
Now, ask yourself, how radical of a change to behavior are you asking people to make?
To best answer that, you might consider the next question.
Does it make life easier?
The electric toothbrush, the e-bike, the escalator. These inventions all ask users for the slightest behavior variations. Of the changes they ask users to make, the return is an increase in convenience that makes the user's life easier. The reusable water bottle is a noble idea and straddles the convenience issue.
At first, the reusable water bottle was a “buy this because it’s the right thing to do” product. Every corner store sold water and users had a habit of purchasing bottles. The reusable water bottle made life easier and was practical once it was able to improve user behavior and develop the habit of filling your bottle at home and carrying it with you during your day.
Still, stopping into a market was equally as convenient, especially for cold water. The best thing to happen to the reusable water bottle actually came from an app.
We already associate bottled water with “bad behavior” so bottle brands next needed to find where the water fountains were. Meet FindTap, an app that based on your geolocation, tells you where the nearest water fountain is and has network effects: increased numbers of people or participants improve the value of a good or service.
FindTap solved an existing problem with a practical solution that makes life easier. Now reusable water bottle users have the convenience of cold water with them or available to them all day, they’re doing good, and they’re saving money on purchasing new water daily
An innovation that asked for a larger behavior change in exchange for significant improvements to our life was Venmo. We had pay-pal which first provided a level of comfort with online payments, but now we could split a bill with two taps on an iPhone. The physical behavior wasn’t so radical, but the idea of sending money through your phone, especially with hackers and data breaches headlining news was deeply unsettling. Some generations still don’t trust it. But, damn has it made life easier.
Have you disagreed with it yet?
Dissension leads to discord, people disagreeing. Constructively. You might ask why I would want to introduce conflict into my creative process and it’s because you need it. But more, you need a system for it.
By creating an environment that welcomes and encourages authentic dissension, you create a system that opposes confirmation bias. When fostering a culture for dissent you combat confirmation bias and groupthink, the tendency to seek consensus which is abundant in the early stages.
“Groupthink is the enemy of originality; people feel pressured to conform to the dominant, default, views instead of championing diversity of thought.” — Adam Grant
So be responsible and seek trusted dissent. Rather than focusing on the strengths of your ideas — lean into ignoring and discounting their limitations.
You need to be completely aware of the drawbacks and disadvantages of your company because when you pitch it, people will look for holes. When you foster an environment in which employees or colleagues can respond with candor you create allies and put everyone on team one and into problem-solving mode, not hole poking.
But have caution and make it authentic. Dissenting for the sake of dissenting is not useful. It is also not useful if it’s “pretend dissent” for example if role-played. It is also not useful if motivated by considerations other than searching for the truth of the best solutions. When it is authentic it stimulates thought, it clarifies, and it emboldens. A good way to do that is to seek out consultants that specialize is authentic dissension.
How many of your peers are involved?
I don’t mean intimately involved, but have you asked them for feedback? You, the founder, or early team member, are vital and intimately involved with the project. In the coming steps you’ll begin asking a wider network for feedback, so ease into it by asking those whose friendship runs deep with you. They know how to speak to you and deliver criticism you’ll accept. They want you to succeed.
Is your entire company on board?
If you’ve nurtured an environment that hosts authentic dissension, then the answer is probably yes, and you checked this off when this idea was still a line in a google doc.
In 2014, Warby Parker created an internal program called Warbles that invited everyone from the company to submit suggestions and requests for new technology at any time.
Having this channel alone isn’t enough, you need to act on it. When you actually respond to these suggestions and implement them, it becomes a system that the whole company buys into because they trust that it works and their voices are heard, valued, and desired.
“Much of Warby Parker’s recent success is due to the way they involved peers in evaluating ideas” Grant regretfully shares while mentioning he passed on being an initial investor in the company.
Have you asked colleagues, creators, or fellow founders what they think?
In Originals, Adam Grant reports that when artists assessed one another’s performances, they were about twice as accurate as managers and test audiences in predicting success. He writes:
“Instead of attempting to assess our own originality or seeking feedback from managers, we ought to turn more often to our colleagues. They lack the risk-aversion of managers and test audiences; they’re open to seeing the potential in unusual possibilities, which guards against false negatives. At the same time, they have no particular investment in our ideas, which gives they enough distance to offer an honest appraisal and protects against false positives” — Adam Grant
The action is to have a list of 10, 20, or 30 trusted minds whose feedback you value, and whose feedback you can take without sensitivities. At a point where you are able to fully articulate your idea, package it up, ship it over to this group and say I need your help.
Have you killed the company yet?
Oo, dark. You’ve performed a competitive analysis, you’ve done test marketing, you’ve fostered authentic dissension, you created a practical solution that doesn’t ask for significant changes to behavior and makes user life easier, you’ve solved an existing solution, and you’ve found a category to be first to. But, have you killed the company yet?
You’ve done everything to arrive at the starting line and press go, but what happens after launch? Have you thought about how the market or competitors will respond?
“In the ‘Kill Your Company’ exercise, you are challenged to reframe a gain-framed activity in terms of losses. When deliberating about innovation opportunities, the leaders weren’t inclined to take risks. When they considered how their competitors could put them out of business, they realized that it was a risk not to innovate. When people have to work hard to generate their own objections, they will be more aware of its virtues.” — Adam Grant
So swap tech t-shirts for a few days and explore what your competitors could create that would kill your company.
Are you patient enough?
Marketing effects deliver over time, and most decisions to maximize profits are near-sighted and reactionary. Trust what you’re building. When your patient, you avoid rushing to market and can truly deliver something great.
A great way to evaluate if you are patient enough is to complete every item on this list. Why?
Well, it will take up to 1 month to have all these conversations, and these are the steps you need to take, so if you’re not patient enough to spare several weeks, then are you patient enough to steer this ship for a decade?
A cautionary tale
I want to bring up something to be wary of that Reis and Trout call the law of extension. How many brands do you know that continue to roll out new products?
Well, according to the law of extension you shouldn’t.
There’s an irresistible pressure to extend the equity of the brand. When a brand is doing well with one product or one thing, they then begin adding on items. The Law of Extensions says doing that is an error because it falsely assumes the brand name is more important than the product and that new products often actually block older more successful products.
Now let me contradict everything.
Just because you meticulously complete each of these steps without spilling a drop, you’re not guaranteed success.
There’s also the possibility you can find success without following any of these. Outliers exist, but this is a good resource to use when moving from idea generation to idea selection.
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