How to Avoid Scrapping Your Next Great Idea Prematurely

Don’t miss that breakthrough product or growth opportunity.

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A few years ago I was up late watching Stephen Fry in America, a documentary series in which Stephen Fry visited all 50 states of the union.

In this particular episode Stephen Fry travels to San Francisco to meet Jonathan Ive — the visionary industrial designer responsible for spearheading the design of game changing Apple products such as the iMac, iPod, iPhone & iPad.

Jonathan Ive made a couple of comments that really hit home with me.

I’ve paraphrased it below…

Ideas are so fragile. It’s so easy to miss an idea because they can be so quiet. It’s so important to have the willingness to develop those fragile tentative ideas into a real product.” — Jonathan Ive

The gravity of this is actually pretty immense. Every day, people have ideas that never develop beyond an undeveloped state.

What do I mean by an undeveloped state?

Lets use the example idea of ‘building a practical and user friendly portable media player because the existing competition stinks’ — (the iPod).

While this idea has a high-level objective the substance and methods of achieving it are completely undefined.

Super important things like design, hardware, marketing, target audience, compatibility, content, software etc. That’s what makes it an undeveloped idea.

It takes considerable effort to cognitively fill in these unknowns, so ideas can breakdown quickly and disappear at this point.

Particularly if there is more than one person involved. Communication adds additional complexity so undeveloped ideas are particularly vulnerable to getting lost in translation.

Due to the incredible effort put in by numerous people at Apple and the vision of engineer Tony Fadell an undeveloped idea turned into the iPod.

In other situations undeveloped ideas never evolve beyond their initial basic state. This can lead to missed opportunities — small or gigantic.

For example, before joining Apple Tony Fadell pitched his ‘iPod idea’ to Real Networks. It didn’t get traction with the team there and Real Networks missed out on one of the most significant product opportunities this century.

Think about it

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Having an idea is a fundamental part of what it means to be human.

And, I’m not just talking moonshots or DNA sequencing here.

Ideas can range from everyday thoughts such as birthday gifts or recipes, to more elaborate thinking within the fields of marine conservation or database architecture.

Most ideas never make it beyond a momentary flickering of electrical signals in the brain.

But, that is usually completely fine and normal.

Some ideas get trumped by other ideas in our head. Some ideas just don’t work when we think through them properly. Some ideas are constrained by time and resources that inhibit action.

A potentially big problem within the idea formulation and development process is when an undeveloped idea with intrinsically sound merit is shared with others and dismissed too quickly.

This issue is particularly prudent for startups, but ultimately effects all organisations — big corporations, government bodies, charities, and academic institutions — on some level.

Through one reason or another, many potentially great ideas perish at an early stage before they have been properly considered or developed collaboratively amongst a team.

In reality, most ideas largely deserve this fate. Other times they don’t.

Sometimes an undeveloped idea that has the potential to evolve into something phenomenal can be discarded to early, without proper exploration or consideration by peers. When this happens, a travesty has occurred.

Every organisation should strive to minimise the chances of this happening within their structure and culture.

Bringing together a collection of bright-minded people over extended periods of time with their own unique experiences and skill-sets is not cheap or easy, so it is imperative to nail down the idea sharing and evaluation process to minimise the risk a great idea slips through the cracks.

In reality, this is much harder to put into action than it is to say. Most ideas simply don’t deserve that much attention. It would be a complete waste of time and resources to pursue all of them beyond a reasonable degree.

So, the question is, how can you mitigate the risk that a great idea will be discarded along with the trash in a time-effective manner?

Idea sharing challenges

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Once an idea has spread beyond the existence within a single mind and shared for the first time, its fundamental state has changed. When this occurs it faces a number of existential challenges in order to progress further.

One of these challenges is communication. For instance, there is no such thing as a carbon copy of an undeveloped idea — it’s not possible to ‘CC’ someone into your thoughts.

So when an undeveloped idea is shared it’s interpreted. When this happens an idea has progressed into multiple variations of existence. It’s now even less clearly defined than it was before.

Interpretation of an idea can be a good thing since it draws upon the varied knowledge and experience of a peer group and this can lead to greater refinement and development of the idea. But, it can also be prohibitive.

That’s because an idea isn’t random. There’s a reason it occurred.

If we peel back this reasoning in each instance, there’s a supporting structure of perceived logic and understanding that led to the formulation of the idea.

This is the ‘merits’ of an idea.

In the ‘iPod idea’ example merits were:

  • Due to the digital music boom it will lead to more sales of Macintoshes.

  • Apple were already developing iTunes and it would tie in well.

  • Existing digital music players were either big and clunky or small and useless. Storage capacity was tiny and the UX was terrible.

Without this merit framework building the iPod might just seem like a distraction from Apple’s core competency in personal computers.

Whilst these merits may seem obvious — they‘re often nuanced and subtle (or “quiet” in Jonathan Ive’s words).

They have to be teased out with care. Sometimes they’re so subtle even the person who had the idea may find articulating them difficult.

For example, pre-iPhone it would’ve been difficult to communicate how customers would feel using it. You practically have to build it to convey the value.

If merits are not understood properly it’s hard for others to see value in an idea. It will just seem like a waste of resources and dismissed.

Consider that undeveloped ideas are ambiguous by nature. There’s tonnes of room for interpretation.

Understanding the merits requires meaningful effort, particularly if it’s outside of one’s area of domain expertise. Therefore it’s easy to dismiss an idea because it’s the path of least cognitive resistance.

This is dangerous and can create a culture of premature idea dismissal if left unchecked, increasing the risk a great undeveloped idea gets thrown away.

Idea panning

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To mitigate the risk my team dismisses a great idea prematurely I like to practice ‘idea panning’.

It has a similar objective to panning for gold — a process to discard the dirt and discover the shiny nuggets within a time-effective manner.

First of all, it’s important to set a precedent of open-mindedness.

We’re all cognitively wired to view any idea we become exposed to through a biased lense. This is good and bad.

Because undeveloped ideas are ambiguous it’s natural to overlay a previously developed idea we have become exposed to onto a developed idea. This can miss valuable nuances and lead to quick false conclusions.

So, when an idea is initially shared it should be done in an atmosphere where the listener actively tries to suppress previous experiences. An open mind and blank slate. Not quick to judgment.

The person with the idea should take particular care and time to detail and explain the logic underpinning the merits of the idea they’re sharing.

If it helps to build a quick no code demo or pitch deck to do this, go for it. I have even gone one step further and released no code MVPs or customer-facing experiments. Having this data in hand provides additional clarity when pitching an idea.

This stage should be a two-way dialogue, verifying each logic step as the idea conveyor proceeds through the merits.

Some of the merits may require a sophisticated understanding of a particular ecosystem, technology or consumer behavior. The idea conveyor should try to break these down into digestible points and not get overly technical.

After this initial phase, it’s helpful to have a more active Q&A period. Really allow the idea receivers to probe the merits of the idea in an atmosphere that is non-adversarial.

The mood should be positive and constructive. To the degree that every undeveloped idea is by default considered a great idea until the idea panning process has concluded and proven otherwise. The inverse of this dynamic creates negativity and quick dismissal.

Once the Q&A period has concluded everyone in the peer group should explain the idea and specifically the merits underpinning it.

Not simply repeating keywords and phrases but substantively walking through the logic of the merits and pitching the idea holistically in their own words. If someone in the peer group can’t explain it succinctly they likely don’t understand it.

Now the process has reached this point we can start to layer in the value of cognitive bias and personal unique experiences. Each person on the team should contribute analysis and opinion through their own lense.

The objective is not to dismiss cognitive bias (it’s an effective heuristic tool) but just not allow it to block intrinsically great undeveloped ideas too early.

Once this section of the process has concluded the idea conveyor should be allowed to challenge the analysis and opinion of others freely without prejudice — even if there is huge asymmetry in domain experience and achievement between two parties (this is important).

This stage should be encouraged to develop into a healthy back and forth of critical thinking.

Finally, it’s time to vote to kill the idea now or develop it further.

Everyone in an idea review peer group should exhaustively understand the merits behind an idea before voting to approve or dismiss it.

This willingness for everyone within the peer group to tease out the merits behind an idea, and to properly challenge their own understanding of it before dismissal is vital.


Idea panning is time-consuming at first. It takes some time to get into a rhythm with your team.

But with practice, it can become an effective mechanism to review and either dismiss or develop ideas.

I am not suggesting it’s a perfect system. After all, there are other variables within a peer group that need to be considered — clashing personalities, differing goals, and perceived constraints that can affect idea approval outcome.

These are all difficult to define and control, but, by peeling back the merits behind an idea collaboratively within a positive-minded culture, it’s possible to reduce the risk a great idea slips by.

Thanks for reading! Until next time…

All the best,

Martin


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Image credits.

Steve Johnson | Unsplash

Matt Seymour | Unsplash

Riccardo Annandale | Upslash