Everyone loves talking about a good idea, but did you know that good ideas can be bad for innovation? Good ideas encourage teams to spend more time refining and polishing an unproven thought, instead of testing and iterating on a hypothesis. In this post, we'll share our approach to avoiding the "good ideas trap" so you can spend more time testing and learning.
The well of good ideas never dries up. Someone in your team might have an idea that could make internal communications between employees easier. A group might suggest an idea that could help solve a customer pain point. Management might decide to invest in software that can efficiently collect all of these great ideas. All of this ultimately results in a lot of great talk and hardly any real evidence that all those good ideas will work.
“But what’s the accountability for a good idea?” wrote Michael Schrage last year in Harvard Business Review. “The fact that a lot of people think it’s a good idea? That’s a popularity contest.” Schrage, author of The Innovator’s Hypothesis, believes that ideas are cheap. What companies should be doing is experimenting immediately and frequently to validate or invalidate ideas; minimize risk through a series of testable hypotheses; and iterate on the learnings generated by manageable failure.
Schrage, Lean Startup champions Steve Blank and Eric Ries, and our team at Strategyzer believe successful innovators spend less time talking, and more time testing. They avoid the good ideas trap and approach innovation like a scientist.
Good ideas are a trap
I once worked for a company with so many ideas that they decided to hold an innovation contest. The purpose of the contest was to streamline the search for good ideas.
The teams that participated in my company’s innovation contest had no clue if their ideas would work. They had no proof. They weren’t ask to validate ideas, just present them. They had to make management believe that their ideas were needed to innovate the company. These were good ideas after all. As Schrage points out in his article, the teams in my company were really “innovation amateurs” because they only talked about good ideas. “Innovation experts,” explains Schrage, “talk testable hypotheses.”
My company had fallen into a good ideas trap. Our teams spent countless hours discussing, brainstorming, and voting on the ways to execute their good idea. They blazed through stacks of Post-It Notes; organized incredibly important and stressful meetings; and really fell in love with what they each thought were game-changing concepts. Everything sounded great on paper and looked flashy in a deck, but they had nothing to show for it. There wasn’t any evidence to prove that the concepts would work. Management felt it was too risky to give a green light on untested thinking. It was all talk.
The teams who participated could have avoided the good ideas trap if they had:
Figured out how to test the idea, instead of just discussing if the idea was any good
Immediately started testing, failing, and learning through quick and cheap experiments that would produce tangible evidence
Encouraged discovery of multiple ideas, rather than refining and polishing only one agreed upon assumption
But to do that, the teams in my company needed to think more like scientists. They needed an approach.
Innovation is a science
Ideas need to be tested frequently and thoroughly to learn and iterate on a concept. There is no “aha!” moment. Schrage believes there’s a recognition that a testable hypothesis requires more rigour than simply coming up with good ideas.
It’s how you move away from the good ideas trap, and begin building evidence that can validate or invalidate your original idea. Think back to your high school science experiments for a moment. Every test conducted in your classroom lab involved these four steps:
- Hypothesis: What needs to be true for your idea(s) to work?
- Test: How will you test to see if your hypothesis is true or false?
- Metrics: What will you measure to validate or invalidate your hypothesis?
- Conclusion: What does success look like? Is this a starting point?
We took these same four steps to design our own Test Card. It’s a simple tool that allows us to frame proposals for innovation in the form of a testable hypothesis. I encourage you to use our Test Card to bring focus to your ideas and experiments.
We believe, like Schrage, that ideas need to be quickly, cheaply, and productively tested to define its value. More importantly, the Test Card allows us to avoid the trap of just talking about good ideas. It gives us focus for all the ideas we have, and it encourages us to place an importance on evidence over opinions.
Experiments shouldn’t just prove if your original idea was correct. It should place stress on your assumption, break it apart, and result in many different outcomes that might be stronger and better than what was initially assumed.Through the process above, your team might learn that the original “good idea” was completely off the mark. A new, better idea might emerge from your experiments. More importantly, these focused experiments will help minimize potential risks and failures. Try it out.
What are some experiments you’ve conducted inside your organization? What did you learn?