Ideas are the raw material of innovation. Innovators sift through a lot of dross to discover the ones worth developing. Many that don’t look like much at first, with some explanation and research, are worth adding to the collection. Some glitter and fade quickly on close examination. Some are incomplete.
But overall, an innovator needs to be open to collecting many more ideas than he or she will ever explore, develop, refine, invest in, and make a part of products and services. Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling said, “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.”
I believe in recording those ideas that catch my attention with some thoroughness. Minimally, I write down a complete sentence and include at least one reference. (I didn’t always do this, so I have useless lists of one- or two-word ideas that I can’t decipher.) Each notation should be able to tell me (and, ideally, anyone) why it is on the list.
After that, I let the idea sit — in most cases for a month. Often ideas are like romantic infatuations, and they lose their luster with the passage of time. I return to them and wonder, “what was I thinking?”
Those that survive get interrogated. Here are the ten questions I use (usually in this order):
- Do I understand this idea in terms of a big picture? What other ideas is it like? How would I classify it? This often reveals surprising applications. Sometimes it shows me that similar concepts are superior.
- Do I understand this idea in detail? What makes it distinctive? Why did it call out to me? This is the most interesting question. It digs into the value that first attracted me and forces me to articulate it clearly.
- Could this idea be matched up with other ideas on my list? Is it intrinsically supporting, like a handle to a pot? Or is it the main deal? Does it have a natural synergy with one or more ideas on my list?
- If I were forced, how would I connect it to each of the top five ideas I’m working on? (Forced fits are mostly absurd, but can be revealing when they work.)
- Can I connect it in some way to a concept that’s hot? Would it add in an important way to any of these? (This can give the idea a boost as I work to socialize it.)
- Does this idea offer any benefits relative to my list of important needs for clients, customers, or society?
- Does this idea have any affinity with major sectors in business (insurance, banking), industry (manufacturing, transportation, telecommunications), government, and non-profit?
- When would this idea, in the best circumstances, contribute to a product or service? Next month? Next year? Ten years from now? What would be needed to make this happen faster?
- Am I still excited about this idea?
- Who are the three people I know with whom I should discuss this idea? (These are not necessarily the three most obvious people.)
Some ideas are put back onto the shelf (and may get another chance later). A few shoulder their ways onto my to-do list, which begins with further exploration. Along the way, the best ideas get the traditional innovators questions about potential markets, competing ideas, costs, and more. But, thanks to early work, I have a better perspective on the potential of the ideas I’ve picked up, both in terms of opportunities and impact.