The problem with ideas

Confession: I’m often an “idea guy.”

So let’s start with that. I love discussing ideas, thinking about ideas, possibilities, how things could be done in a different way.

That’s a gift. It’s also a problem.

There’s a tension between having ideas and taking action on ideas. Ideas on their own could be accurate or completely misdirected.

It’s like having a plan.

“Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth.”

Mike Tyson

Plans have to be able to adjust to reality. The same thing happens with ideas. Until you can test them, say them out loud, and put them in the world to interact with others, you don’t often know which ones will be good or bad.

John Mayer made a similar comment about songwriting. When you write a song, you don’t know if it’s going to be a hit. You have to release it and then how people respond to it determines if it’s a hit.

I’m not dismissing ideas themselves. However, there has to be a process attached to getting past all the bad ideas.

A couple approaches:

Tell everybody. Declare your big ambitions. When you have an idea or dream, say it out loud and see how it takes shape as others hear about it. Maybe even pick 4 or 6 different ones and start taking action on them. See which one starts to get the most traction and then go with that one. This approach is a very loose summary of what I’ve learned from Bob Goff through his podcast.

Hypothesize and test. Instead of just “having an idea,” can you reframe the idea into a testable hypothesis. Better, can you create a whole portfolio of business experiments that you will test?

Use the language of “I have a hunch” instead of “I have an idea.” For most, this will require both humility and courage. The goal is NOT to prove the hypothesis, but to test it. And in testing it, to learn from it. The learning process then gives the information to take next steps.

This is in contrast to the approach of analyze and implement (without running early experiments).

For more on this approach, see Michael Schrage’s book, The Innovator’s Hypothesis.

A side note on ideas, experiments, innovation, and trying new things. Fear is often a big part of the process. Specifically, fear of failure. However, the irony is that the fastest way forward is to be comfortable with being wrong – with not knowing what the answer is going to be. This can make most of us really uneasy. NOT KNOWING – the acknowledgement that uncertainty is part of the process. As I’ve been studying innovation, one of the other themes that keeps coming up is how much it reveals about an organization’s culture. There are many places that are not comfortable with taking on a batch of projects/experiments when the outcome is uncertain. However, remember that EVEN VENTURE CAPITALISTS DO NOT KNOW which startups they are investing in are going to be profitable. That’s why a portfolio of experiments can be a great way to find something that actually works.

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