Monday, April 6, 2009

Why Some Ideas Should Die

Scott Berkun put up a post the other day titled, Where do Your Ideas Die? He tries to make the point that for companies who want to innovate, lack of ideas is rarely the problem. Instead, the problem rests with the bottlenecks in the creative lifecycle. Apparently, according to his commenters, I'm (or managers/business owners like me) the bottleneck - the manager who refuses to fund the many good ideas sent my way. Here's my take on why seemingly good ideas don't get funded.

  • You're lazy - You've only fleshed out 1% of what needs to be fleshed out to fund an idea, leaving the other 99% for your potential sponsor. Here's an example, "We should leverage social networks." You don't have to spend 6 months writing a business plan around your idea, but see how far you can take it before handing it off. You'll learn in the process and your idea will have a much better shot at getting funded.
  • The Idea Has Been Explored Previously - Unless your idea is truly groundbreaking, it's likely the team that owns the particular area has already considered it and decided not to pursue it (or maybe they did pursue it and failed).
  • The Idea Seems Big, But Is Small - The thing you're proposing is a "good thing", but is small, in terms of amount of benefit per user or number of users affected.
  • Better Things To Do - You may have a million dollar idea, but there may already be five or ten million dollar projects in the works (even if you're not aware of them).
  • The Idea Will Fail - Unless you're a true expert in your area, in which case you can probably fund the idea yourself, someone else probably knows more about how your idea will fare in the market than you do. They have more experience, and better judgment/instincts based on that experience.
These categories were easy to come up with because they're some of the reasons ideas I've kicked out to other teams haven't been funded, and also the reasons why I haven't funded outside ideas in my space. Believe me, if someone sends me a truly compelling idea related to my business, I will absolutely pursue it.

Think your idea doesn't fall into any of these categories? Then here's what to do:
  1. Flesh It Out - See how far you can take the idea. Try to model how many users might be affected and how it benefits them (and your company).
  2. Mock It Up - Try to cobble together some mockups, either yourself or from a designer that you can trade for a bottle of Scotch. I learned to do this myself because otherwise I'd be going through Scotch like nobody's business.
  3. Address the Risks - Try to come up with reasons why the idea might fail and see how you can mitigate those risks in your plan.
When you do pitch ideas to people in a position to fund them, but don't, make sure to ask them why they passed. Then, apply that information to your next ideas and try to make a better, more bulletproof case. Most importantly, don't stop trying just because your first few ideas don't find receptive ideas. Remember what Andre Agassi's dad told him when he was first starting to play tennis, "Son, just hit the ball as hard as you can. Sooner or later, they'll start going in."

In a future post, I'll talk about some ways to generate more (hopefully good) ideas for your own product.



  1. Love this. More later but thanks for the comment and the post.

  2. Just want to challenge the first point about You're lazy. I think the example you give is a bit exaggerated. Most likely, like most managers, you're probably tapping the most out of your employees and keeping them busy on current projects. Now, if I've got a great idea, what I need is time to go out and do the research necessary to build a strong case. Therefore, I'm going to need that approval from you my manager to take some time off to develop my idea.

    So imagine, I came to you and said, that, "Hey, I think Amazon should get involved in a new concept called collaborative authoring - i.e. you create an environment where a bunch of people get together and author a book and Amazon publishes that". It's just an idea. It's the 1% of the idea, but I would need to get budgeted time to understand the needs of the market. I could mockup something as well, but still, if there isn't a culture where I am slowly given increasing amounts of time, you the manager do indeed become a bottleneck to the idea.


  3. Insead, good question. My point is not that you have to do all the work, but you at least need to create a spark - a glimmer of hope that the idea is worth pursuing. In the case you present, I would probably ask you, "What leads you to believe that people want to do this? How many? If successful, how many books do you think would be created? Would they be good books? Would people want to buy them? If we invest significant time and effort to build and market this program are our customers better off in the long run? Is Amazon?"

    Lots of questions to be answered before something like this would be greenlit. You need to answer at least some of them and then "success-based investing" kicks in. You may need to do some work after-hours to answer some initial questions, or carve a little time out of your day without hurting your normal job performance. If you bring some answers, then I as your manager might give you air cover to be a little less productive and pursue some more.

    The key thing is that I have to believe the idea has promise, and I have to believe that you're capable of moving the ball forward. Make sure you earn that trust and confidence by how you do your day job before expecting time to pursue other ideas.

    If the idea has to get pitched to another team then even more questions need to get answered. If there is enough potential upside I might work with you to get the idea to the point at which it might be successful once pitched. This isn't about me taking credit for the idea, it's about trying to help it reach the tipping point rather than letting it fall flat.

    Sounds like a good topic for another post. Thanks for posing the question.


  4. Ian, Thanks for the promptness.

    Seems like you have some sort of framework - a function of employee credibility and due diligence, when considering employee ideas. I'd say you're a good manager if you're able to execute successfully on this framework.

    Unfortunately, a significant number of managers (based on my experience and that of a few friends) are focused on 'defensive' projects (as you say in another posting) rather than offensive ones and that prevents them from adopting frameworks like yours.

    Your blog goes into my RSS reader. Keep posting.