How to bring the best ideas to life: 6 steps

Be deliberate about the way you handle ideas, where you focus, and how you innovate with your customers for validation. Consider this six-step process to bring the best ideas to reality
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During my time as a CIO, I could hardly walk the floors without receiving a number of walk up ideas, ways we could make our business run better. I was fortunate to work with very innovative colleagues, so there was no shortage of ideas.

That was the easy part. Filtering those ideas, testing their true value, and maximizing the potential – not so easy. The opportunities today may be greater, but the resources to bring ideas to life are still in short supply. And the clock seems to run a lot faster.

Filtering is a process of curation – setting the bar for potential that merits the work of evaluation – and testing – assessing the value of the idea in the eyes of the customer.

[ Do you make thoughtful decisions? Read also: 4 styles of decision-making: A leader's guide. ]

The opportunities today may be greater, but the resources to bring ideas to life are still in short supply. And the clock seems to run a lot faster.

As a guideline, ask this simple question of each idea – will this make things 10x better (10x faster, 10 percent of the cost, 10x the quality), or does it offer a small, incremental improvement? Most ideas will fall short of the 10x benchmark. Whether it's 10x or 15x, set your own bar for success as a first filter. Then take any ideas above that bar and test them with the customer.

Here's how. 

Turn ideas into reality: 6 steps

Once ideas pass your first filter, how do you ensure the best ones rise to the top and see the light of day? There’s never been a better time to be deliberate and thoughtful about the way you handle ideas; where you focus, and how you innovate with your customers for validation.

Consider this six-step process.

1. Turn your business into an idea machine. Ideas are fleeting. If a front-line colleague has an epiphany about improving your customer experience, you need a way to capture that. If a customer makes a suggestion – perhaps in the form of a complaint – you need to capture that too.

Your organization probably has people who are “paid to come up with new ideas,” but inspiration is not the domain of the VP strategy, CMO, or VP R&D. Inspiration is everywhere. Ensuring that ideas don’t “fleet” into the ether is not as simple as having a suggestions box. It takes a culture of experimentation and engagement.

Try this: Ramp up your colleague engagement with one 30-minute “drop-in” session a week. These sessions should be open to all, but particularly those on the front line that work with your customers every day. Encourage ideas (sharing takes confidence) and put them somewhere where everyone can see. A simple spreadsheet will do the trick. For extra points, ramp up your customer validation – invite them to these sessions.

2. Be aware of the shoulders you can build on. Ideas are rarely new. Chances are that someone, somewhere has done something that would revolutionize your business. You’ll get a leg up if you can find out what, who, and how. Google will present no shortage of tech headlines about the big innovator brands. But look deeper and you’ll find nuggets of wisdom everywhere.

Speak frequently across your network, follow the opinions of thought leaders inside and outside your industry, and read recent history. Find experts who have helped other leaders create and achieve game-changing visions.

Try this: Read widely – especially outside your industry – and ask “what if we could do that?” Inspiration can change your business.

3. Have an opinion on the future of technology in your field. If you’ve chosen a career in technology, odds are you have strong opinions on what tech can do. But it takes work to avoid our own blind-spots. They come in the form of deep-seated opinions and lack of information. Keep an open mind, and be ready to change your view in the face of challenging questions.

It takes work to avoid our own blind-spots. They come in the form of deep-seated opinions and lack of information.

Try this: First identify, then challenge your opinions and disrupt your own thinking. Asking questions like “at what point in the future will my customer not need me?” can really shake things up. Oftentimes, the most challenging questions come from consulting opinions beyond your colleagues – ask your customers, of course, but also your network and respected experts for their brutal, honest opinions.

4. Grow with your customers. Your innovations, no matter how much you believe in them, may not resonate with your customers. If you’re looking to change your industry, you’ll need to win over innovator and early adopter customers – folks who’ll embrace early implementations because they share your vision. Your ideas will only prosper when you walk hand in hand with your customers. 

Try this: List your top five ideas and consider which of your customers would welcome a conversation to learn more. If you have names, give them a call. If you don’t, hold off on the idea until you do. (If you haven’t read Crossing the Chasm, pick up a copy today.) If you offer your customers an opportunity to participate in some of your drop-in sessions early on (see #1), you’ll have a better chance of getting them on board later down the road.

5. Turn the havoc of change into confidence for your team. Ideas can overwhelm. The bigger the effort to turn an idea into reality, the more daunting the task. If your team is attuned to rapid innovation, they are in great shape for the challenge. But the team may need nurturing through a series of confidence-building wins. Change success is all about confidence.

Try this: Plan your work as a series of goals that stretch your team just beyond their comfort zones. Move one step at a time, and celebrate each win.

6. Think big and act small. Visions are only as grand as their realization. James Dyson has a vision to move air around. He built 5,127 prototypes before he learned how to create and control a cyclone. It only took him five years. That’s around three experiments a day, every day. Three small steps towards his grand vision of moving air more efficiently than anyone had done before. Realizing ideas is fraught with risk – that’s part of the fun. Focus on taking small steps that remove the biggest risks first to avoid misspent investment of time and money.

Try this: Remove risk in the smallest steps. Fundamentally, there are two types of risk: "Can we do this?" (often referred to as technical risk) and "Will the customer care?" (a.k.a. market risk).

Unless the technical risk is high – such as R&D – you should focus on removing market risk first. Describe the idea in terms your customer can relate to, and ask, don't dictate, the value it would have to them.

Many of us are hard-wired to jump to solutions mode too soon. The Jobs To Be Done technique offers a great way to focus on the customers’ challenges and validate the market before even thinking about the solution. [Here’s a great starting point and a short video.]

Having ideas is the easy part. Turning the best into reality takes the patience of an innovator – what James Dyson calls the serendipity of persistence.

A little bit of process can go a long way towards bringing your ideas to life.

[ Are you leading culture change? Get the free eBook, Organize for Innovation. ]

Graham Binks, CEO, primeFusion Inc., helps CEOs and leaders build better businesses on technology.

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