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Taking Your Idea from Good to Great

Good-to-Great Matrix

Ah, the myth of the flash of genius or the eureka moment. Rarely does a brilliant idea spring forth fully-formed and ready for that billion-dollar valuation. There are a great many, many steps that stand between your taurine-addled, TED-marathon-inspired brainchild and the delightful product or service that will win you legions of dedicated customers.

Contrary to what your Nana tells you, you’re idea ain’t that special. Not yet, it isn’t. What? You thought you were the only person on a planet of 7 billion people to have ever come up with that idea? I guarantee you, you’re not. But…you can be the one in a billion who has the conviction, passion, and tenacity to do something special with that idea. To take the initial spark of inspiration and turn it into something truly great.

So how do you take your idea from it-seemed-like-genius-at-3am to life-would-cease-to-exist-without-it? By being disciplined about how you develop that idea. Here’s a Good-to-Great Matrix I’ve developed as a thinking exercise when I’m considering an idea. It’s not meant to be a checklist nor is it exhaustive by any means. It’s simply a place from which my exploration can take me down many paths. Food for thought. A tool to begin a conversation with my peers, potential supporters, experts, and investors. It’s something I return to frequently through iterations and pivots.

I won’t go into each item individually but I will highlight three that I’ve found most helpful, especially as I’ve coached other aspiring innovators through this exercise. For this, I’ll lean on a few of the Delphic Maxims.

Know Your Opportunity (Customer)
Who are your 1000 superfans? If you can’t delight 1000 people there is no way you’re going to be able to delight millions. Now, I’m not saying that your entire enterprise can sustain itself on just a thousand customers as there are very few businesses that could. But what I am saying is before you can grow your legions of fans, you’ve got to really understand who are the first thousand superfans. Rabid about telling others about your work. Can’t imagine life if you went away. Those are your thousand superfans. They will help you stay laser-focused as you go through your first important iterations. They will help you manage scope.

Whenever I am considering a concept, I construct an archetype in my mind of who I imagine the ideal customer might be. For example: he is Jack, 36, husband and father to a 4-year old daughter, and lives in Topeka, Kansas; Jack makes $44K a year and spends less than $2400 a year online. So now, as I consider Jack’s needs and how I might address them I can defer those features that wouldn’t delight Jack. That’s not to say I won’t come back to revisit them for Jill, 28, single, makes $82K a year, and spends more than $4700 a year online. But for now, it’s all about Jack. Jack will be my superfan. Jack will convince and bring on board Tom, Dick, and Harry.

Why 1000? It’s a tipping point to 2500, then 5000, then 10000, and so on. It’s not a trivial number but also not an impossibly high number. I can personally talk to a thousand people over a long weekend. I can give great attention and service to a thousand people. I can delight 1000 superfans.

Know Thyself (Experiment)
What could you test right now? I’m a programmer by training. It’s in my nature to tinker. To hack. To get into the code and experiment. There is goodness in this. But it could also lead me too far down a path before I’ve really considered my critical assumptions. What are the one or two things that if they prove to be false my entire concept falls apart? Great, now how do I construct an experiment to validate them without touching code? If developing the idea would cost me $100K in dev hours, how do I test it for $1K? Before building a mobile app, how could I test it using existing tools and user behaviors? In the hundreds of teams I’ve coached through this exercise I have yet to encounter a critical assumption we couldn’t test without minimal dev effort.

Know the Judge (Sponsors)
Who do you need to convince? One might think that this is a no-brainer but I can’t tell you how often I have asked this question only to be met with blank stares and deafening silence. Not all investors are created equally. The temptation to go after the big firms with the deep pockets is tremendous. Bigger is not always better. You’ll need to consider who are the people who will be most passionate about your idea, who will be the most invested, who will have the best resources to bring to bear on your concept. That is who you need to convince.

This is especially true if you are trying to promote an idea within a large organization. You might think that going to the CEO, CTO, and CPO is a guaranteed path to success. It’s not. Any more than going to the Vice President of regional sales in EMEA when your concept lands in APAC. If your concept involves automobiles then speaking to the Director of Data Infrastructure probably isn’t going to have as great a return for you as finding time with the Director of Motors. Know who you have to convince.

An Exercise
I have used this matrix in many different parts of my life, not just for my work in innovation. I had a colleague who I was coaching on the Good-to-Great Matrix a while ago who was having a bit of difficulty grasping it so I asked her to walk me through some project she had that was not work-related. She was trying to get an intramural soccer league started for her daughter. So who were her 1000 superfans? Girls? Not good enough. Girls between the ages 6 and 11 who lived in her school district who recently saw their athletic budgets cut. Those are superfans.

Who did she need to convince? Local parks and rec in order to use their facilities. Other Moms who wanted the same for their daughters. What could you test right now? Before you get into all of that city paperwork, liability insurance, and funding, do you have enough interested parents and players? If that isn’t true you cannot have an intramural soccer league. Put those phone trees to work. Speak to the other parents. Ask how many would be ready to put a deposit down for league fees. If you don’t think that this pre-sale approach is practical ask Tough Mudder, who pre-sold 4500 tickets and made a cool $500K before digging a single obstacle; they’re worth over $250M today. By asking her just three of the questions from the Good-to-Great Matrix she was well on her way. And, yes, they were able to start their intramural league that still flourishes today.

Final Thoughts
The Good-to-Great Matrix is not a formula for success. It’s simply a tool to help you with a rigorous, disciplined approach to developing an idea. It helps you begin to think of all those devilish little details. From here, the really hard work begins.

Developing a Shared Vocabulary for Innovation

Innovation has become the most pervasive meme in business today. Mission statements, strategic objectives, and press releases are dominated by the word, “innovation.” Why is it, then, that few organizations are able to clearly articulate a coherent, consistent innovation strategy that soundly aligns with their business objectives? “We’ll just know it when we see it,” doesn’t really constitute a sound innovation agenda.

The difficulty arises because innovation is such a broadly encompassing concept. Rarely is the time spent to clearly define what innovation actually means for the organization and then properly socialize it across the organization. Ask 10 people to define innovation and you’ll get 10 different definitions. Therein is the root—and frequent frustration—of why large organizations always seem to be at odds over what their innovation strategy should be.

There is no single, correct model or definition of innovation. It is highly context-sensitive and highly influenced by the needs and objectives it serves. All the more reason that developing a shared vocabulary is a critical first step in articulating a sound innovation strategy.

Here we will discuss four vectors to begin building that shared vocabulary for innovation: scope, mandate, curation, and resourcing. As we begin this exploration, one thing to keep in mind is that we will be discussing a spectrum for each vector. An innovation program will fall somewhere along that spectrum and may shift its emphasis over time. In fact, some organizations will have several innovation channels that have a different composition profile for each vector. This diversity helps enrich an overall innovation ecosystem. The important thing is to understand how each channel is different and how that manifests in its objectives and approach.

SCOPE: Incremental to Disruptive

This is often the primary focal point of innovation discussions. Will our organization pursue incremental or disruptive innovation? The challenge is the blurry line in between. Disruptive innovations are celebrated and get press coverage. They capture the public’s imagination. It’s what many executives look upon with envy. It’s what they proclaim to their organizations they want to see. The problem is, few are willing to do what is necessary to pursue disruptive innovation.

Disruptions are big bets made by those willing to take the risk and understand that most bets will be losers until that one winner pays them all back and then some. Problem is, most organizations are extremely risk averse. After the hype dies down and the business of getting down to business takes over, most organizations fall more towards the incremental end of the spectrum. That is not a bad thing but be honest about what appetite for risk your organization has. Save the rhetoric and the empty calls for disruptive innovation if you are unwilling to do what needs to be done to accomplish that goal. Embrace the incremental if that is more true to your core.

It’s easy to point out disruptive tech…drones, virtual reality, 3D printers, and the like. It’s the smaller innovations that quietly go unnoticed. The magic happens when those incremental and adjacent concepts turn into disruptions. Consider how packaging pre-measured coffee into tiny capsules has led Nespresso to more than 27 billion–yes, that’s a “b”–capsules sold since their introduction. Examine how Gilt made 12 p.m. EST a can’t-miss appointment for its legions of customers. What has been the greatest business innovation in the past 60 years? It’s not computers. The humble shipping container, developed by Malcolm McLean.

As your organization considers the scope of innovation it will pursue, be clear on the investment that it will require and if you are willing to pay it.

MANDATE: Chief to Tribe

Name the most innovative companies in the past 10 years. Most consumers will name the usual suspects: Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and myriad, brilliant Kickstarter projects. What all of these companies have in common is that they are all (or were) led by founders who set the innovation agenda. When the CEO of a company says, “Damn the torpedos, full speed ahead!” there is little doubt about the direction that company is going. There is no room for equivocation on the kinds of innovation they will pursue. It is the Chiefs who lead their people and weather the storm when their bets don’t quite pay out.

But what about Corning, IBM, Samsung, Procter & Gamble, and DARPA? They don’t have a single, charismatic founder setting their innovation agenda. And yet few can doubt their contributions to innovation. What these companies have done is that they have developed cultures and processes for sustained innovation. They have built a Tribe of innovation.

Your organization falls somewhere in this spectrum between Chiefs and Tribes. How your innovation agenda proceeds has to take into account where you are as a company. In the beginning, Chiefs are necessary to get things started. They build the confidence of the organization and take the heat in the unpredictable world of innovation. But as an organization matures, it has to find a way to bring that innovation into the Tribes or it dies with the Chief. Consider the words of Charles de Montesquieu, “In the infancy of societies, the chiefs of state shape its institutions; later the institutions shape the chiefs of state.” So the question for your organization is whether it has need of a Chief to set the course or is it ready to tackle the far more difficult task of building the Tribe.

CURATION: Farmer to Ranger

If you plant corn, you will get corn. If you pay attention, dedicate yourself to your craft, and work hard at it, you can become the greatest corn farmer in the world. But all you will ever raise is corn. You will not, all of a sudden, find carrots or orchids growing your fields. Sometimes, corn is exactly what your organization needs. Consider Corning. Most modern glass is made primarily of silica. Yet Corning has taken those tiny grains of sand and made glass strong enough to defy belief, stunning interactive displays, and even speakers. Yes, all that from glass. Corning is phenomenal at what it does and is driving innovation.

A ranger, on the other hand, cultivates an ecosystem. The ranger understands that for the apex species to survive they are dependent on other species, vegetation, and insects. So it falls on the ranger to ensure the ecosystem is healthy and thriving. Somewhere in that forest, under a rotting log is growing a fungus that can treat cancer. The ranger didn’t plan for it and couldn’t have even predicted it. But the ranger ensured that the conditions were optimal for such discoveries to be made. Sure, the ranger might have a responsibility to favor the care of certain trees for lumber or protecting endangered species to ensure their survival. So too might your organization need to favor specific domains, all the while ensuring the ecosystem is rich and diverse enough to support unexpected innovation.

So the question of curation falls to whether your organization wants to specialize on a few very select crops or whether it wants to tend to a rainforest.

RESOURCING: Funded or Crowdsourced

Want innovation? You’re going to have to pay for it. The question is, how? Some companies, like Google, have put in place programs that allocate dedicated time for their employees to work on innovation. Others create mechanisms that behave like crowdsourcing, where employees freely give of their time, fueled by their passion for a concept. These grassroots campaigns drive a concept to maturity until it gains enough support to get additional funding.

This is the vector most organizations are loathe to discuss and will be met with hemming and hawing and endless, pointless discussion. This is because few organizations are able or willing to make that commitment to innovation. This is where the rubber meets the road and when all is said and done, is your organization willing to put its money where its mouth is? In the beginning, many organizations will be perfectly content to depend on the passion of those rarified individuals who will drive their innovation, support or no. This is not sustainable and cannot compete with organizations that are willing to make that investment consistently. You cannot starve an innovation program and then expect world-changing innovations from your people. Why should they? Some will point to Kickstarter and other scrappy startups and say, “See? How come they can do it?” Because to the victors go the spoils. Yes, the risk falls upon these startups and they are more than likely to fail, but the grand rewards are theirs if they do.

The question for your organization is to what degree you will resource innovation. How difficult will you make it for crowdsourced concepts to jump that gap? How much stamina do you think your organization has for exploring innovation in their own free time…time away from family and loved ones, nights, weekends, and holidays…before they decide it’s no longer worth it?

AN EXAMPLE: Open Source

Let’s take these vectors and consider something like open source. On paper, open source shouldn’t work. Wait, legions of Developers worldwide will work on code that they give freely, that anyone else can take and copy and profit from? No way that works. Yet the most popular browsers, operating systems, web servers, and databases are open source projects.

Open source falls somewhere closer to incremental than it does to disruption, though the collective application and extension of that work can certainly move into disruption. It is driven by a Tribe and crowdsourced (though at times Chiefs have been necessary to start it). Rangers help care for the ecosystem. Now, if your organization lusts after the benefits of open source then it can’t very well behave in ways counter to what makes open source possible and expect the same results. I oversimplify here, of course, as there are many other considerations that help open source to thrive. But I hope you will see how having a shared vocabulary can begin more productive conversations and can highlight how your organization is positioning itself for its desired outcomes.

This is just the beginning of the dialogue and certainly a more comprehensive vocabulary will be necessary. You may need to develop your own dialects and idioms as befits your organization, market, or industry. Framing your discussion in these shared terms will at least help you set some clear definition around what is being discussed and how to understand each position in context.

Oh, and I used the word “innovation” 43 times in this article. Sorry about that.