If there’s one thing we have learned it’s that a lack of ideas is never the problem.
We can’t count how many times we’ve been with companies, leaders, and teams who have told us they have lots of ideas of how to change, save, or improve their business. The problem is not getting stuck wondering what to do — it’s getting unstuck to start the doing.
Top Tip: Ideas are never the problem. Testing them is.
One example was a well-known publisher who got their ideas from everywhere; their people, their writers, their editors and their customers — especially the most passionate ones. You only have to look through the opinion section of any of their articles to see all the ‘kind’ suggestions from readers on how they could improve their services, stay relevant and delight their customers. Yes, ideas are abundant, and come from everywhere. Ways to fix this, improve that. There’s never a shortage of ideas to make it better.
While it is fantastic to generate ideas, and trigger them from everywhere, knowing where and how to start, is one place companies get stuck. To answer the question we need to ask: Why are we getting stuck? When we consider the reasons we get stuck we find a few obvious culprits.
Firstly, there’s the bureaucracy. Often a one-size fits all, analytic-biased, opinion-based theatre production of bad governance. For most companies the amount of form filling and paper pushing required to run a one week ‘experiment’ requires the same amount of time, effort and investment as a multi-million, multi-year and multi-person initiative. Getting sign off for three people to design, build and test something small requires a multi-page PowerPoint deck of analysis, accounting and financial returns before they can even show it to five customers — once everyone who ‘owns’ the customer has had a chance to stick their oar in and agree it’s safe to proceed.
Top Tip: If it takes longer to write about why, how, and what you want to do it than it takes to do it, it should not be surprising that it never gets done.
Bonus Tip: To get high quality evidence you need both analysis and action. Over investing in one means you lose out on the benefit of the other.
Secondly, if you’re luckily enough to get the green light to go — teams struggle with where they should start? “We have a backlog of 100+ ideas. Which should we test first? How many and for how long?” Invariably this ends in a series of meetings, debates and HiPPO opinions supported by false facts and industry research to substantiate their idea is the place to start! “I’ve been in the industry for 25 years. I know what our customers want!”
Top Tip: Most of our ideas are wrongheaded. In fact, 60%–90% of ideas do not improve the metric they were intended to improve. You can invest in convincing people why your idea is the best, or you can invest that time in testing it to find out.
The final result and compounding effect of these obstacles is the company ultimately gets overwhelmed, and therefore stuck. Stuck with the same products, services and challenges its always had. Sitting there… with no new ideas or innovations in the market to help it get unstuck. Instead waiting for someone or something to disrupt them.
How to get unstuck
What we have learned over time and through experience is that you can relieve the stuck-ness. And the trick is to think BIG, but start small. We start by establishing a mindset that is focused on small steps not big leaps. Big leaps are scary and add to the feeling of being stuck and overwhelmed. Bite size is much more digestible. You can see, and feel, and show evidence of progress more tangibly. Intermittent successes and recoverable failures drive the process forward.
Accept, upfront, that not everything is going to be a priority. For example, in an initial run through of 30 ideas, use your best judgment to parse it down to 6–7 (save the remaining). Then pull the team (teams should also be small, 5–6 people) together, along with a lot of stickies and sharpies. Put the 6 ideas on a whiteboard. Give each one 5 minutes of discussion (use a timer!); post the salient points under each idea. After you’ve gone through the 6 ideas vote using either colored dots (everyone gets 3) or a simple retrospective for each. You should be down to 3 ideas.
Create 3 teams, each responsible to test 1 of the 3 remaining ideas. Team members may vary but a good rule of thumb is a product person, customer experience/designer and technologist. (For higher up in the ranks, ideas that are more top-tier strategic, you may want product lead/facilitator, customer experience/designer, and a senior manager/expert.) The intent is to iterate those small bites to see if the idea is viable.
Each team is responsible for framing the idea as a hypothesis, defining their success metric upfront, and creating an experiment to test the hypothesis. Tests could be talking to customers, A/B testing usage of critical feature (e.g. recommendation engine), or pinpointing/understanding market size and competition (which is not the same as pulling in an analyst to gather data and put them in charts). The important thing is at the end you have data that validates or invalidates your hypothesis.
Usually these tests can be accomplished in one week. Sometimes for various reasons it may take 2 — but never more than that!
Finally after your 3 tests are completed and with data in hand the original group (from the prioritize step) gathers to review results. We hold ourselves accountable to the success metrics we defined for each idea and use the data we’ve gathered to make a decision to stop, continue, or course correct each idea.
If none of the test results are satisfactory that’s great too! You’ve invested a week, discovered it’s not worth investing any more time, effort or dollars on them, and move onto the next set of ideas to be tested.
Team-based testing usually takes a shorter amount of time and produces more real, actionable results than any PowerPoint business analysis. It’s also not institutional inwardly but customer outwardly focused (which is where the opportunities are).
(1) Remember you need a balance of analysis and action. It’s easy to get stuck doing only one or neither.
(2) Match the amount of analysis and action to the level of investment you’re making and uncertainty you’re facing.
(3) When uncertainty is high use short, fast and frequent testing iterations.
(4) It requires leadership to define the questions, let teams seeks the answers, and share the results.
(5) In most cases, it requires the same financial investment to have executives/leaders and teams in a room talking about whose ideas are best as it does to deploy a small group on the street to test them. The question is which do you think will yield better results?
And remember as Mark Twain said, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”
I was delighted to co-author this article with Beth Temple Product Strategy & Development, Lean Coach, Mentor, Board member, New York City
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If you’re keen to introduce these ideas and more business agility into your organization why not join one of my two-day workshops in San Francisco with Jeff Gothelf on October 19-20 and New York with Josh Seiden on November 9-10