Top Ideas and How to Execute Them

Which Top Ideas to Pitch?

The next stage is to consider how these ideas might be implemented by your organization. Look at the top ideas and say to yourself as the leader, “These are great ideas—how can we execute them?” The following questions will help you get to your answer:

top ideas

top ideas

Can we get our teams passionate about working on this idea?

Do we have the skills and abilities to do this?

Can I get senior management on board with this?

Senior executives are show-and-tell. In other words, you need to supply information to support the good ideas, but you also have to show them that people will care on an emotional level. So before you select the final two or three ideas that you are going to fully develop and present, ask yourself whether this idea is one that you’re going to be able to create some sizzle with and get people excited about? Will you be able to create a vision that people are going to fall behind and want to be a part of?

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These questions are about the potential difficulties of selling the idea internally. It’s important to know that I don’t ask all groups these questions. These questions can be very politically sensitive, and asking them to the wrong mix of people can provoke arguments and problems. You need to use your own judgment about whether asking these questions helps your group or will derail it.

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You as the leader need to make the call as to which two or three top ideas should be pitched to senior management. Before doing so, the ideas need to be turned into a proposal. Before the workshop ends, assign teams to each idea, and set deadlines for when the pitch needs to be ready. Give the team clear guidelines on the structure of the pitch.

Killer Questions and Stepping Outside

Do Your Homework

Once you have assigned your Killer Questions, briefed your group, and set the date for the innovation session, it’s time for everyone involved to do observational homework. This is exactly what it sounds like.

Killer Questions and Stepping Outside

Killer Questions and Stepping Outside

You need your team to get out of the office, into the real world, and make as many observations as possible related to the Killer Questions. Your team can make these field trips as individuals or pairs, but they should avoid big groups. Big groups allow people to hide and not participate, and a larger-size group can be slower and lethargic compared to smaller groups.

The first thing to decide on is where your observational session will be most useful. For example, if you are focusing on your consumers then you must head to where your consumers generally experience or purchase your product. One there, you should talk to them. For some questions, you might want to talk to salespeople as well as your internal marketing and sales teams—the people making purchasing orders for distributors.

Get Out There and Ask the Killer Questions

So where exactly do you go? You could start in the mall, or your offices or factories—anywhere you or your customers conduct business. Wherever it is, get out there and really engage them. Remember that the dynamic between an organization and its customer is as complex and nuanced as any other relationship. In order to sell to a person you need to understand the details of their life.

Are they in groups or shopping alone? How do they appear? Are they ambling contentedly, or do they appear in a state of distress? Do they make purchasing decisions quickly or spend ten minutes wavering between shampoo brands? What is your gut feeling about the people you are observing? Does their physical appearance match the image you have in your head? What is their emotional state, their financial security? What can you tell about their priorities and beliefs? Is there anything here that surprises you?

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Observe Your Customers

When we were developing our tablet device, we went to coffee stores in New York City and recruited members of the laptop-and-latte world, asking them to allow us to conduct in-home observations. This was several years ago, in the pre-Kindle era, and we were still investigating what customers would actually do with a tablet. We knew it could work as a digital book, but limiting it to that use seemed constraining. A digital book was a good idea, but could we press further and come up with an even better idea?

For a few weeks our researchers shadowed the volunteers around their homes. We photographed their book and music collections and noted their magazine subscriptions and TV habits. We figured out what people were really doing with their free time versus what they told us they were doing with their free time. This investigation showed us that what our consumers needed was a device for media consumption across a wide range of media types (books, magazines, music, movies, TV, etc.). This kind of discovery is why you need to get out there in the field and observe your customer. Doing so can completely reshape your understanding of what they actually want from you and your product.

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From a Fresh Perspective

If your area of investigation is not focused on consumers—heavy manufacturing, for instance—you will need to tailor your homework to focus on this instead. Go to the plant and see how the factory operates. Talk to the guys on the line. Try ordering your product, try using it. Do whatever it takes to step outside of your experience and see your area of investigation from a fresh perspective.

Have your group note everything they see, learn, and think in relation to the Killer Questions. It could be totally left-field and seemingly unrelated to your bigger problem. Nonetheless, write it down. Take pictures, videos, or audio recordings. Collect evidence and create artifacts that you can share with the team in the workshop. This may feel uncomfortable, and if so, great! The idea here is for everyone involved to step outside of his or her experience and biases and see the customer or product from a neutral perspective.

If you’re not working as part of a group, you can still use other people to force yourself to see things differently. In the past I’ve taken along a friend of a different ethnicity, or strong-armed an out-of-town relative or my wife or children into coming on these kinds of field trips with me. When I do this, I observe them as they observe others. What are they seeing that I’m missing? The goal of all these exercises is to be a little uncomfortable, because this discomfort means you are shifting your perspective, and, quite literally, getting out of the comfort zone that is stagnating you and your work.

Individual Ideas in Workshop Groups

Sharing and Grouping

At the end of the ideation part of the workshop, have the team members briefly talk through their individual ideas. Have them take their Post-it notes and place them on a flip chart or other surface that everyone can see. Get through this process quickly. You don’t need master’s dissertations.

Start to group the Post-its together if two or more people have a similar idea. Once everyone has their individual ideas posted, have the groups come up and finish “grouping” them into common categories, which they should then name. Pick the person who is clearly the most passionate about the idea to give it a descriptive name, and sum up the concept in a sentence. Get rid of any duplicate ideas at this point, and get to the core list of ideas.

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Why is this reset important? Your subconscious will continue to work on it, even when you are not aware of it. In the mid-1800s Elias Howe was struggling to invent a machine that could industrialize sewing, just as the new spinning and weaving machines had revolutionized the textile industry. He tried for years to create a machine that could stitch two layers of fabric together, but he could not find a solution. One night he fell into a deep sleep, and had an exceptionally vivid dream that spear-carrying savages were attacking him. When he looked at the spears, he noticed a hole in the tip of each spear. Eureka! The next morning he began work on a sewing machine with a needle that was threaded through the sharp tip rather than its rounded end, and his invention led to a complete shift in how clothing was manufactured, marketed, and purchased.

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Howe’s idea may seem like it came out of nowhere, but in reality his subconscious had done the work of making the connections between everything he had been observing and thinking about. Like Howe, you sometimes need to just let the brain do what it wants to do and not stress about thinking about things all the time. If nothing is coming to you, step away from the process and let your mind relax before you try again.

Area of Focus for Workshop Groups

Preparing for Your Workshop

The ideas you generate in your workshop are only ever going to be as good as the people in the group. I want people of different ages, races, education levels, economic statuses, and beliefs to come up with an area of focus. Theoretically, I want twenty-three-year-old inner-city scholarship kids sitting next to corn-fed engineers three times their age, senior management next to designers and enthusiastic interns and so on.

Area of Focus

Area of Focus

Big ideas are born out of being surprised and out of your knowledge colliding with a new bit of information. This won’t happen if you all “know” the same things. Get participants from as many areas of your organization as possible, and keep the doors open to all comers as much as is feasible. At the same time, you need to find people who will actively and eagerly participate. Some people have the right credentials but don’t contribute to the group, so you as the leader need to understand the dynamics of each person. I track how effective people have been in previous workshops. If they are active, dynamic, and great contributors (building on others’ ideas), they get invited back. If they are lumps on a log or overly critical of others’ ideas, they don’t.

Area of Focus and Killer Questions

Some group organizers have an immediate area they know they need to focus in on. Their organization may be losing customers and need to find ways to either reengage with their existing demographic, or find ways to make new customers. They may realize their product needs to evolve, or that their way of doing business is growing obsolete. However, if you don’t know where to focus, you should either use the assumption questions to help you zoom in on one, or simply pick among the Who, What, or How categories.

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Once you’ve homed in on your area of focus, turn to the lists of Killer Questions, and select one to three questions from the appropriate list. Remember, you’re looking for questions that you can’t currently answer, or even guess an answer to. If you look at a Killer Question and think, “I know the answer to that,” then your group participants may well have the same reaction, and you won’t get the level of new insight you need.

Don’t be afraid to rewrite the questions. Over the years I’ve found that the wording on the questions is critically important. Be specific about where the question is being aimed, especially if you are going after an area that is a touchy or difficult subject for your organization. Use language your teams will understand, but at the same time watch out for words that are overly familiar and loaded with meaning. Words have unique connotations at different organizations, and if you don’t understand the nuances of how those words are understood, you may cause people to assume you are asking a much narrower question than you really are.

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Bear in mind that the questions in this book use the word “product,” but the questions can be used for “services,” “solutions,” etc. Use whatever word works for your organization. The word “product” is widely assumed to mean hardware at HP, and if I ask a Killer Question related to product, people will assume I’m talking very specifically about hardware. If I’m looking for a broader set of ideas, I will use the word “solution.” Be careful of words that have evolved to mean something beyond their dictionary definition in your organization, or come weighted with baggage. Changing a familiar word to a less-expected one may be an easy way to give you a radically different response.

Give your group the area of focus and the Killer Questions two weeks before the date of the workshop. Make sure that your participants understand that they have homework, and that they are expected to show up to the workshop prepared. They need to get out and observe. One important note: it’s essential to start the process in a very focused way, however you should still have a plan for addressing ideas that don’t fit into your chosen area of focus. For instance, a group member may make a fantastic observation about how you are manufacturing your product while investigating who the customer is. If that happens, don’t ignore it. Add it to the list of ideas to be considered at a later date. There are no limits to where ideas can come from.

Ideation Workshop Game Plan

Coordinating Your Workshop

So what do you need to know as the leader of an ideation workshop? A workshop has multiple elements—participants, Killer Questions, and so on—but at the end of the day, the quality of the ideas directly relates to your ability to create a highly functional, highly effective group.

Ideation Workshop

In the following series of posts I’m going to walk you through the way I set up and oversee my workshops. First, I’ll provide a general game plan that you can use for your own workshop, and then I’ll dive a bit deeper to help explain each step in detail.

But before we jump into how you actually run an effective ideation workshop, I want to point out that there are two different scenarios. For the most part, I work with big organizations. The workshops I run have multiple participants, and there are representatives from all the relevant divisions present. However, this system is equally valuable to a small business or an individual entrepreneur.

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Don’t be discouraged if you are a one or two-person operation. I’ll give you ideas for how to maximize your workshop throughout this section. One suggestion I would make if you are on your own is to form your own “executive board.” Find a great group of people who are either connected to your business in some way (your lawyer, your accountant, angel investors)—people whose business savvy and experience you respect, or simply wise friends whose opinions you seek out anyway. Get two to five people involved and passionate enough that they’ll participate in your Innovation Workshop. It’s perfectly possible to walk this road alone, but it’s easier with a little help. Don’t be afraid to ask for it.

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Ideation Workshop Timeline

  • Two to three weeks prior
  • Recruit group members
  • Decide on your area of focus Pick 1 to 3 Killer Questions and assign Killer Question homework
  • Set date for workshop two weeks after homework assigned

Day of

  • 9:00–9:30 Brief overview
  • 9:30–10:30 Share industry and company assumptions and rules
  • 10:30–12:00 Discuss Killer Questions and share the results of the homework
  • 12:00–1:00 Lunch
  • 1:00–3:00 Get ideas up on board 30 min
    • Generate ideas
    • 40 min posting/sharing
    • 50 min grouping of ideas
  • 3:00–4:00 Break
  • 4:00–5:00 Rank ideas
  • 5:00–5:30 Set follow-up session for group charged with making presentation of best idea(s)

Innovation Savings: Your Input Cost

What input, if reduced, would allow me to cut the price by 25 percent?

There is a reason that the percentage in this question is as high as it is. Sure, it would sound less scary and more reasonable if I asked you how you could cut your price by 5 percent, or maybe 8 percent, but that would be missing the point.

If you want potentially game-changing moves to get ahead of your competition, you need to make big savings and do something bold to get to that leader-of-the-pack position. The best place to find these kinds of savings is in your biggest input cost. Don’t settle for parity; look for those things that are a necessary evil in your business and see if you can turn them into a competitive advantage instead. If you and your competitor have the same basic cost structure and you can slash yours by a major innovation, well, you get the picture.

You need to continually look at ways to drastically lower the price of your product, because if you don’t, it’s possible that your competitors will. If you’ve ever driven in India, you’ve probably had some alarming near-death encounters with the brightly painted Tata trucks that fill the country’s highways. They are huge, and rather than using their braking systems they rely on their horns to get other cars out of their way. About eight years ago Tata decided to enter the passenger-vehicle market, despite the logistical difficulties of making the leap from manufacturing trucks to lightweight single-family cars. The car they came up with, the Nano, uses a two-cylinder engine and much less sheet metal than a comparable vehicle. Its trunk can hold one small bag, and it lacks a passenger-side mirror. In other words, anything that is not strictly necessary to fulfill the mission of getting a family from point A to point B has been cut.

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They are currently selling a car priced at under $2,000 in the Indian market. The cars have some issues. They are small, slow, and seem prone to catching on fire at inopportune times. Still, Tata is coming to the US market, and despite some production setbacks in India, it clearly has ambitions to succeed here. If they do, it will radically change the nature of the domestic car industry. Would you buy your kid a $13,000 starter car if a similar model were $5,000 cheaper? US car companies have an opinion about who their customer is and what their customer expects to get from (and to pay for) a car. And this could prove very dangerous for Detroit if Tata figures out how to connect with US drivers and start making meaningful sales. If US car companies are going to defend themselves against hungry and aggressive competitors like Tata and their Chinese equivalents, they need to be careful. These companies have no assumptions or expectations about how they might sell their cars in the United States. Nor do they have a history of hitting certain price points or any expectations that a car is only worth selling if it brings in a certain amount of profit. They have different philosophies of what a car needs to be in order to satisfy their customer. What if the US customer starts to agree with them? Look at the sudden explosion of unrest in the Middle East and the resulting upswing in oil prices. Suppose things get worse, not better? A company that knows how to use minimal materials and resources to build ultra-cheap, ultra–fuel efficient cars, and isn’t afraid to charge rock-bottom prices for them, is going to have a huge advantage in the US marketplace.

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It will take a cognitive side step for Detroit to respond to ultra-cheap imports from the third world. Hopefully you are willing to take that kind of side step, both to develop your product and ensure you aren’t leaving any gaps for a competitor to sneak something game-changing into the marketplace.


Sparking Points

  • Are there innovation targets that could radically change that? Could you get a distinct advantage in your cost model by using an alternative?
  • Are you offering things that you can eliminate because the customers don’t attribute any value to them?

Innovate for Time-sensitive Customers

How can I cut the transaction time a customer experiences with my product?

My wife loves to look for travel bargains. Her main goal is to save money, and she considers spending several hours comparison shopping a fair tradeoff for savings. I’m kind of the opposite; in the very rare instances when I have to make my own travel plans I all I want is to find the least-annoying flight as quickly as possible.

Recently I’ve started checking Hipmunk, a travel aggregator that uses an extremely simple layout to find you flights ordered from least annoying to progressively more annoying (long layovers, overbooked flights, etc.). Hipmunk has been smart to realize how the so-called paradox of choice can turn a relatively simple shopping expedition into a drawn-out and time-sucking endeavor. By simplifying the visual clutter, minimizing the input a customer has to enter, and steering you toward the least-aggravating choices, sites like Hipmunk limit the transaction time customers spend on their purchases. In other words, by seeming to offer you less, they actually offer time-sensitive customers more.

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Of course, there are risks to this. I happened to stop at my local IKEA the first weekend they transitioned over to self-checkout. They had made the somewhat questionable decision to replace all of their traditional checkout lanes simultaneously. The backlog of frustrated, angry, and eventually furious customers eventually led to hundreds of shoppers—including me—abandoning their carts and walking out. If you’re an established business and you’re going to make a radical change to the transaction experience, do it gradually or risk alienating your existing customers and destroying what goodwill you’ve already built up.

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Sparking Points

  • Are you currently offering your customers options they would willingly trade for a faster transaction time?
  • What is the equivalent of the 80/20 Rule when it comes to the time a customer spends with your organization?
  • What parts of the transaction can be eliminated or combined to achieve a competitive advantage?

Innovation Process: Develop…Then Design Later?

In what order do you do the R&D process? What would be the result if you flipped it?

In the traditional R&D process, the product is developed and then handed off to the design team to “wrap” it and make it look pretty. The drawback is that this approach is out of date; in the last ten years consumers have become much more design-savvy. Consumers want functional, usable design that highlights ease of use, or a more emotive design that adds a personal connection with the product or in some way broadcasts a statement about the user’s more subtle, hard-to-define beliefs about themselves.

We can all name a handful of companies that are melding form and function in a way that resonates with users and creates a deep-seated brand loyalty. Look at JetBlue. They are essentially a low-cost carrier, but their design does a masterful job of suggesting that they provide a full-service experience. Their terminal at JFK is a flashback to the old-world style of travel—more elegant and sophisticated than its customers would expect it to be, and more pleasant to spend time in compared with the terminals of most of its competitors, the so-called legacy carriers.

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It’s important to constantly ask why you develop your product elements in a particular order. This is especially true if your organization has been in business for a substantial length of time and yet you’re still developing your products in an order that was devised to suit production methods from decades ago. Ford Motor Company worked with Ideo and the New York–based design firm Smart Design on the Ford Fusion. This was a daring move for Ford, as the car industry has always believed in keeping new ideas proprietary. By bringing in outside firms they risked their design being leaked prematurely. However, they recognized both that they needed to do something bold with the design to reflect the radically new nature of the car and that they didn’t know where to start.

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Sparking Points

  • In what order do you develop an idea and its components? What would happen if you changed that?
  • How did you make the determination about your customers’ priorities in regards to how you ordered the phases of R&D?
  • When do you involve design in the R&D? What would be the impact if you change it?

Innovate and Design over the Competition

What industries are analogous to ours, and what can we learn from them?

No matter what business we are in, we are all fighting essentially the same fight—designing a product that a customer will prefer over that of our competitor. To do this, we need to constantly be aware of how our business environment is evolving, how our customers are changing, and what we need to modify in order to keep our product relevant and desirable.

If you’re in the business of making widgets, don’t just look to other widget makers to get a sense of how you are faring in the global business space. Look at other businesses that have similar key elements in common with you. I find the airline industry endlessly fascinating. It, like the tech industry, has gradually found ways to make its core products less expensive and more accessible to the general public. However, in return, their customers have had to accept a vast reduction in services and expectations. It’s an interesting seesaw between what the customer truly wants and what they are willing to give up in order to get it. In the center are the core essentials: a safe, convenient flight at a low fare. Everything else falls away in relevance as long as the core criteria are met. What are the fundamentals that have to be in place in order to maintain an ongoing and happy relationship between you and your customer?

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Suppose you were the head of operations at a megachurch. Perhaps Chicago’s Willow Creek, or Joel Osteen’s church in Houston. Osteen’s church seats almost 16,000 people, and runs four worship services plus various meeting groups every Sunday, which means that there are up to 64,000 people—and the cars they are driving—coming in and out of the church parking lot in one day. The sheer number of congregants means that the odds of getting into fender-benders, gridlock, and potentially dangerous traffic in the church’s parking lot increases as one congregation departs and the next one arrives. So what do you do? Where do you go to learn the mechanics of moving that number of vehicles, and that number of human beings, in an efficient and safe manner?

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If you’re serious about solving this problem, you go to the Disney Academy at Disney World. Now, entertaining legions of small children with animatronic animals and teacup rides doesn’t have much in common with preaching about God. But sixty years of crowd management has made Disney operations the undisputed champion of event control and coordination. By working with Disney, these churches could learn a few things about integrating their system of traffic flow and parking. Fender-benders would go down, customer satisfaction would go up, and everybody would be happy.


Sparking Points

  • What industries or businesses that are unrelated to yours are dealing with issues similar to yours? For example, issues of production, customer segments, or marketing.
  • What are the lessons learned in terms of the push and pull between where those businesses are succeeding and where they are failing?
  • What are some nonbusiness examples with similar issues to yours (such as foreign governments or a nongovernment agency like the Red Cross)?

Make Your Innovation Idea Happen, First!

A few years ago I saw a website offering a product called After the Rapture Pet Care. It claimed to offer a service for Christians concerned about the welfare of pets that would be left behind after the Day of Judgment.

Subscribers were promised a network of non-Christians who’d swoop in, collect pets, and promise to care for them and tend to their needs in the absence of their owners. I’m not sure if this was a parody or not. My suspicion is that even if it were offered as a sincere business, the owners had no expectation of ever needing to make good on their service. Still, it makes a point.

The only boundary to the innovation and development of a new product—a What—is your willingness to get out there; think up an idea, no matter how crazy; and give it a shot. Venture capital is a great thing, but if you’re sitting there telling yourself you can’t do something, can’t get your What out there because of a lack of cash, time, expertise, etc., then you’re missing the point. Success has always been part inspiration, part ideation, and part tenacity. Don’t put yourself in the position of seeing someone else make your idea happen. Don’t be that person sitting in a bar, telling everyone within earshot about how you had that idea first. It doesn’t matter if you had that idea first; it matters if you made it happen first.