I don’t believe in great ideas. The power of an idea isn’t in its creativity, brilliance, or originality, because what are ideas before they turn into action? How should we feel about them and evaluate them beforehand? What does it mean if they do or don’t work, especially in an unpredictable context? The true value of an idea lies in its potential to solve a real problem.
Take MakeSpace, for instance–the Dropbox for physical storage. The business Valleywag called the “worst tech idea of 2014” will store three boxes of your stuff for you. Like its digital cloud storage counterparts, it provides on-demand delivery and drop-off for items.
Despite this initial criticism, MakeSpace has thrived because of its focus on offering value to customers, and the prevalence of positive customer reviews that help it reach new consumers. The business has received 98 five-star ratings from Yelp since it launched in September 2013. Critics focused on the idea behind the service instead of focusing on the practical benefits it could potentially provide.
So-called genius ideas that don’t solve a real problem your customers experience, or serve your company’s goals only distract you from your mission–and derail your company’s progress.
Here are three steps for coming up with ideas that will actually advance your company:
Any new initiative or more detailed solution your company takes on should address a problem or need your customers face, or improve your existing business. Your first step to identify these areas should be to interview stakeholders, employees, and customers and look for patterns that reveal areas for improvement.
While Astro Teller, Google’s Captain of Moonshots, argues it’s often easier to make something 10 times better than to make something 10% better, an idea doesn’t have to be a game changer to make a big impact on your company. Sometimes solving minor problems can lead to success in bigger ones.
Once you’ve identified a problem, approach the problem naively by trying not to make definitive predictions of what will work. By seeking outside feedback or evaluating the idea yourself to see if it is coherent–or that it makes enough sense to work–you gain a new perspective. Assemble what Dave Snowden calls a “portfolio of parallel, safe-to-fail experiments.” Some of those experiments should include oblique or indirect solutions.
Consider a project by charity:water. A solution to drinking water in Mozambique did not intend to directly address school absenteeism, but it ended up helping the issue. Rather than enforcing rules that would punish students for being late, the organization dug a town well. Not only did this solve the area’s clean water shortage, but it also freed children from having to wait in long lines to get water from a small hole so they could go to school.
Once you’ve brainstormed solutions to a problem, test your ideas to see if they’re actually solving that problem. If your company is overflowing with new ideas, then start with the most coherent ones, and go from there.
Technology offers resources to test ideas in low-risk environments, but you can also ask your team to poke holes in the idea. One method that’s worked well for us is to break a team into two groups. One group points out flaws in the idea, while the other comes up with reasons why it might work. This usually quickly shows us the value of a solution.
While you shouldn’t waste time on ideas that have the potential to distract your company from its core mission, note the pitfalls if you ignore new ideas completely. Myspace and Nokia both famously failed to incorporate new ideas, and both companies fell behind in their markets when they couldn’t adapt.
The way to avoid chasing useless ideas or ignoring important ones is to ensure all solutions align with your company’s core purpose.
The next time someone comes up with a solution that’s going to be a game changer for your industry, don’t embrace it just because it seems innovative. Instead, test coherent ideas quickly and determine which ones solve real problems. Those are the solutions your customers care about.
—Bobby Emamian is the cofounder and CEO of Prolific Interactive, a strategy-led mobile agency headquartered in Brooklyn, N.Y., with offices in San Francisco. This article was coauthored by Eric Weber, cofounder and CXO of Prolific Interactive.