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Innovation

Generating Great Ideas

Success begins with a daring idea. What’s yours and how are you developing it?

Greg Fisher

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GeneratingGreatIdeas

I recently watched an interview with Bono, the lead singer of U2, during which he said that one of the ways of being remarkable is to conceive and sell ideas. He described compelling ideas as “currency” and said that “there is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come”. What he was saying has huge implications for business. Many great businesses have compelling ideas at their core. Apple is built on the idea that technology can be beautiful and sexy. Discovery Health is built on the notion that people who take care of their health should be rewarded. Kulula.com has at it its core the belief that anyone can fly and have fun while doing so. Nokia is about reliable simplicity.

What is the idea behind your business?

Is it exciting, energising and engaging? Are you able to effectively share this idea with others? Jack Welch, Time magazine’s Manager of the 20th Century, was a master at defining and selling ideas. The key to his leadership success was that he chose and stuck to a few big ideas in his 20-year reign as CEO of General Electric. Some of his big ideas included “be one or two in your market or get out”; “act as a boundaryless organisation”; “drive high quality and super efficiency through six sigma”; “create value through services”; and “streamline operations using e-business”. When he got stuck on an idea he was like a bull terrier. He would sell, push, describe, measure and reinforce that idea at every possible opportunity. Most of his ideas lasted for at least three years, creating a clear set of priorities for the tens of thousands of people employed by GE at the time.

Are you selling a clearly defined idea from within your business?

Defining the core idea behind your business can provide your business with a sense of purpose and direction. Take some time to articulate the core idea behind your business. For some this is easy; for others it can take weeks of contemplation and deep thought. I know an entrepreneur who recently started a training company. Over coffee I asked him: “What’s the exciting idea at the core of your business?” After about 15 unsuccessful attempts to articulate the idea at the core of his business he realised that if he wanted to get his employees aligned with the business and his customers excited by his offering, he needed to be clearer about that core idea.

Do you have a story around your idea?

A good story is one of the most meaningful delivery mechanisms for a compelling idea. The institution where I work has thrived on the story of a maverick management educator receiving an endowment from a successful South African businessman and going out and building a brand new business school from the ground up.  The story encapsulates issues of innovation, partnership and impact, all concepts at the heart of the GIBS brand.

One of the reasons so many people love Virgin is because of the hugely popular Branson autobiography Losing my Virginity. The book tells the story behind the company and the brand, bringing it to life with tales of grand plans, crazy stunts, and incredible risk taking.

The entrepreneurial NGO Starfish focuses on children orphaned by HIV/Aids. The organisation is only a few years old and has a relatively small number of employees, but it has a strong brand and a big reach because it is built on a compelling idea linked to a moving story. The organisation borrowed its name from the parable about an old man who is walking along the beach when he sees a human figure dancing in the distance. As he approaches, he sees that it’s a young woman and she is not dancing but reaching down to the sand, picking up starfish and very gently throwing them back into the ocean. He asks her why she is doing this. She replies that because the sun is up and the tide is going out, if they are not thrown back they will die. The sceptical old man points out that there are miles of beach and thousands of starfish; he questions how she could possibly make a difference. The young woman listens politely, pauses and then bends down, picks up another starfish and throws it into the sea, past the breaking waves, saying: “It made a difference for that one!” Powerful ideas linked to compelling stories spread like wild fire.

As you define and refine the idea behind your business, aim to craft a story that goes with that idea. Take note of the interesting events and interactions that illustrate the idea behind your business. Build them into a story that can be used to describe what you are about.

Do you stick with an idea long enough for it to take effect and permeate the hearts and minds of your clients and employees?

Many people have ideas, but few people hold onto them long enough for them to take effect and have an impact. Sticking with an idea for a sustained period of time is what gives it power. So many business owners start off with energy, vision and deep passion for what their business is about and what it could become. Unfortunately as the demands of business management take their toll, the original idea loses its flair and is mislaid among the paper work and admin of running a business.

But entrepreneurs who make it big know how to keep a vision alive. They remind employees and customers what the business is really about at every opportunity and they do not allow their original idea to be swayed by popular management theory or the latest business bestseller.

So do you have a big idea behind your business, is it compelling, are you selling it at every opportunity? Does your idea break the bounds of conformity? Does it challenge the status quo? Entrepreneurs who are successful over the long-term are the ones who embrace, expose and give life to an idea whose time has come.

Four Steps To A Great Idea

  • Start by defining the idea. Is it great? Is it exciting and original? Is it possible to share your idea with others and watch their eyes light up? An idea needs to capture peoples’ imaginations.
  • Define the core idea behind your business in order to provide the business with a sense of purpose and direction. Ideas give life to a company and propel it forward.
  • Everyone loves a good story – what is the story behind your idea? The point of the story is to bring the idea to life through the power of persuasive narrative.
  • Hold onto your idea for as long as it takes for it to have an effect on others and to carve a niche for itself in the hearts and minds of your employees and customers.

Greg Fisher, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Management & Entrepreneurship Department at the Kelley School of Business, Indiana University. He teaches courses on Strategy, Entrepreneurship, and Turnaround Management. He has a PhD in Strategy and Entrepreneurship from the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington in Seattle and an MBA from the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS). He is also a visiting lecturer at GIBS.

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Innovation

The Art Of Pivoting: How To Know If The Time Is Right

Keep the vision, change the strategy to serve the market according to what they really need.

Jordan Stephanou

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yotube-pivot

The word “pivoting” has become as over-used as the phrase “disruptive innovation”, but much like innovation, businesses have been pivoting for many decades (if not centuries) before the word became an everyday verb. You only need to look at Twitter, which started as a podcasting business, or Nintendo, which started by selling vacuums, or even Youtube, which was supposed to be a dating site for some inspiration.

These businesses may have all changed their product, service, or even target market in a major way, but they survived and have been thriving ever since. They kept their vision of achieving successful sustainable businesses, despite a change in strategy. And that, my friends, is pivoting: Keep the vision, change the strategy to serve the market according to what they really need.

Ask the right questions to your market: Are you solving a problem?

If you haven’t done user testing, user interviews, focus groups, or called anywhere between 10 and 50 of your highest value possible clients, you might want to take a step back and get that done to define if you actually have a problem to solve.

Many founders start by speaking to a handful of family members, and a handful of friends about their business idea, and are met with unbridled excitement and encouragement that you would expect of people in your life who unconditionally love you.

The reality is, these people have to live with you everyday – they don’t want to risk offending you and shattering your dreams. They basically have to tell you that your idea is great. Get tangible proof from real-world customers or clients that they see the problem you see, and that the problem is as big as you think it is.

Set your vision

eric-ries-of-lean-startup

What are you really trying to achieve in your business? In other words, what is your “why”? If you set this in a very clear one liner, you will quickly realise that there are many ways to achieve that vision, if you are able to take emotion out of the equation.

This will take you away from the detail to the big picture. For example, a vision along the lines of “To save people time” could be achieved in hundreds of different ways, and your current offering could be tweaked to increase your market size and save people much more time than your current offering, even if it wasn’t that idea you initially got so excited to tell your dog and three cats about.

To paraphrase Eric Ries of Lean Startup, pivoting is simply a change in strategy, not a change in vision.

How do I know when to pivot?

If you’re going through difficult times in the business, I would recommend going back to the most important people in your business – your clients / customers. Get their thoughts and opinions on what’s working; what’s not working; is your offering solving their problem adequately; what would they like more of, etc.

Finding out how to improve your offering from your existing client base will almost certainly not only help you retain your existing client base, but also grow a new client base by helping you solve the problem more effectively. This process can also reveal if your clients see something in your product that you didn’t – ie.to help you pivot. You will find out what your target market really wants and what your product could be if you weren’t so attached.

This requires extreme open-mindedness, and willingness to implement your learnings, even if what your market wants isn’t as “sexy” as your initial offering. On the flip side, if you can keep improving your current offering without changing direction, and if you still have cashflow and clients in the pipeline, it may not be necessary to pivot yet.

Pivoting is often necessary when the current offering reaches a glass ceiling, it’s impossible to close sales, and when cashflow becomes a problem. However, if you realise that your offering is so far removed from what your customers want that you would have to change your strategy and your vision – that, my friends, could be the time to quit and apply the learnings to the next venture. The key lesson from that eventuality is to do more extensive product-market fit research in the beginning next time, and make sure your product is meeting an actual market need.

What if things were different?

I have an experiment for you to apply within your own business. Remember, open-mindedness is essential to break through the glass ceiling:

  • What if you kept the exact same product / service, but changed your target market? What would the new target market be?
  • What if you changed your product / service, but kept the same target market? What would your new offering be?
  • What if you kept the exact same product / service and the exact same target market, but pursued that market in other cities or countries? If your market were the whole of Africa / North America / Europe etc, would that make a difference? Is it feasible? What would have to happen for it to be feasible?
  • What if you changed your business to a social business? Would partnerships with NGOs open new opportunities in the market?
  • What about the impact you could have and the exposure this could bring to your business?

I highly recommend creating a “what if” business model canvas or pitch deck based on this alternate reality for each of the questions above. This could be a fun activity to do with the team on a weekend away over multiple cups of warm coffee. Good luck, and remember, there is no shame in adapting your business to provide people with what they really need.

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Innovation

An Innovative Culture Absolutely Requires This Unique Capability

What you need is a ‘chaos pilot’ on board at your company. If you don’t have one, think about adding one.

Peter Gasca

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Innovative Culture

In my line of work, I have the privilege of mentoring and working with start-up entrepreneurs who often offer unique and remarkable ideas that, in my opinion, have the potential for significant commercial impact.

Unfortunately, many of these ideas end up in the dust heap of forgotten businesses that never get traction.

Why do so many great ideas fail? The reality is that many promising new ideas are derived from products or services or systems that have yet to be considered. They are disruptive in nature and typically exist only in the abstract.

Dealing with these ideas therefore demands a unique set of skills that differ from general management capabilities typically associated with running a company.

In a recent article at Harvard.com, Nathan Furr, assistant professor of strategy at INSEAD and coauthor of Leading Transformation: How to Take Charge of Your Company’s Future, explained that a critical, and often missing, element for innovative teams is the capacity to function in the abstract. Furr referred to this capacity as negative capability.

To understand the concept, consider what Robert French of the Bristol Business School has called “positive” capabilities. These skills, as they pertain to new ideas, have been connected with successful general managers, because they can:

  • Understand the complexities of new ideas
  • Understand and manage the process by which new ideas are executed
  • Understand and manage the necessary roles within an organisation or team needed to execute on new ideas.

Related: Rapelang Rabana’s Innovation Formula – 3 Key Ingredients To Innovate

These characteristics are typically technical skills that involve structure and discipline. They are valuable for managing any company, especially one operating in a business environment requiring constant innovation. Such innovation is needed to iterate new and bold ideas, but these skills alone are not enough.

The reason is that, to stay ahead and execute on a regular basis, new ideas, especially disruptive ones, often take a team and the entire organisation into unchartered territory where there exists no precedent, historical structure or “road map” to guide them. In these cases, positive capabilities based on structure fall short of execution.

As French explained, this type of change “always arouses anxiety and uncertainty,” and teams that are unprepared tend to move toward avoidance tactics – defaulting to known structures, which then lead to the collapse of the new project.

For that reason, it is critical to have members on the team who can handle uncertainty and unknown outcomes and also have the fortitude to pivot when necessary. These types of leaders are what Furr calls “chaos pilots.” To be an effective chaos pilot yourself, you need more than technical management skills. Here are the three other skill sets he lists:

1. Divergent thinking

To think divergently, Furr explains, individuals need to be able to synthesise a multitude of information and “uniquely connect new information, ideas, and concepts that are usually held far apart.” This skill requires the ability to stay constantly focused on a mission while constantly processing new information.

Leaders who operate as divergent thinkers often surround themselves with talented individuals who can handle the day-to-day operations; that capability frees up the leadership team to collaborate and collect valuable data.

2. Convergent action

According to Furr, great chaos pilots do more than just take in new information. They “execute on new ideas in order to create something tangible.” In other words, they synthesise all the information and leverage it to effectively execute on new ideas.

Far too often, entrepreneurs fall short here, getting consumed by FOMO (fear of missing out) and  failing to prioritise, or at least balance, output time with input time. Doing so creates an entrepreneur with a wealth of information, but ultimately provides very little value.

Related: AutoTrader South Africa’s George Mienie Knows Disruptive Innovation Is More Than Shifting Gears

3. Influential communication

Finally, thinking divergently and being able to “connect the dots” are great skills, but if a chaos pilot is unable to communicate new ideas effectively and, as Furr states, “inspire other leaders and decision-makers to believe, support, and act on a novel idea or opportunity,” the idea will stop short of execution, no matter how well synthesised.

Over the years, I have been a part of innovative teams (at times leading them) whose sole priority was developing new ideas for clients. I recall a few times leading those teams through a comprehensive mind-mapping process meant to spark new ideas. In these situations, we inevitably would stumble on a truly remarkable idea or two, but like our team, those ideas weren’t rooted in a stable and established process; sometimes they weren’t comparable to what we were already doing.

Our ideas would also sometimes get lost in the insecurities and anxiousness of the group and never even be presented.

Great management skills are clearly needed to lead a company and execute ongoing operations effectively, but to consistently generate and see great new ideas through to execution, it is critical to have an effective change manager – or chaos pilot – on your team. And while these skills cannot be taught, they can be learned and nurtured through experience and an environment that encourages and supports risk taking and failure.

This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.

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Innovation

How I Built A Company The Lean Way – By Using The Scientific Method

Starting a company is one of the most irrational acts you can do as a human being. That’s why employing hypotheses and experimentation is crucial.

Joe Kinsella

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In the past five years, the cloud management company I founded has grown from a one-person business into a global employer of over 300 people. Recently, VMware, the most important provider of infrastructure and technology in our industry, purchased us – an exciting milestone as we look to the future and continue to execute on our vision.

In spite of all the twists and turns I’ve experienced, there’s been one thing I did right in the early phases of building this business: Committing to continuous experimentation.

When I left my previous company, I had an idea of where I could bring the most value in the market, based on my previous experiences in cloud computing. But I’d also been inspired by Stephen Blank’s The Four Steps to the Epiphany and indirectly by the Lean Startup movement. As a result, I knew I would start my business from the top down: By devoting myself to a market (cloud management) and to the scientific method for entrepreneurship – dispassionately testing all assumptions and hypotheses, and following where they led.

So, where did I begin? And where do you begin? Here are the steps.

Develop your initial hypotheses

The process of entrepreneurship starts with a set of hypotheses to identify the product or service you will bring to your customers. A good hypothesis is that it answers critical questions regarding your initial business concept that can be proven only through experimentation.

I started my own journey by putting a poster on the wall and using sticky notes to capture the critical hypotheses I needed to test. Every two weeks, I selected a set of hypotheses and designed experiments to prove or disprove them.

En route, I thought about the ecommerce company Zappos – a supporter of the Lean Startup movement – and its initial hypothesis that people would buy shoes online. For the file-sharing company Dropbox, the hypothesis was that users needed a radically simplified way to share files. For the coffee retailer Starbucks, it was that Americans would embrace the Italian coffee culture.

Related: What You Need To Know About The Lean Start-up Model

design-an-experiment

Design an experiment

Next, choose a set of hypotheses to test, and design an experiment to test them. A good experiment should eliminate all ambiguity from the hypothesis to the answer. It should also prove or disprove the hypotheses with the least possible investment.

I was inspired at this stage by stories from entrepreneurs like Dropbox’s Drew Houston, Zappos founder Nick Swinmurn and Starbucks’s Howard Schultz. To prove his hypothesis, Houston didn’t invest in building yet another file-sharing app; he instead created a video that demonstrated the ease of use of his idea for Dropbox and how it could be a differentiator.

Similarly, Swinmurn didn’t choose to buy inventory for his new online shoe store, instead, he took pictures of shoes. He posted them on a website and purchased the shoes from the store only after receiving a customer order.

Schultz, meanwhile, chose to cram his early concept for delivering Italian coffee culture to American consumers into 300 square feet, inside another retail store.

Experiment and observe

My experiments ranged far and wide – from driving an advertising campaign, to creating an A/B test website, to performing customer interviews with large financial institutions, to delivering professional services.

For example, one of my sticky notes asserted simply that, “Cloud cost management is a feature and not a market.” The experiment I designed to prove or disprove this statement was built around helping five local businesses optimise their cloud costs.

As an early-stage entrepreneur, you have to be willing to conduct these sorts of tests to determine what works, what doesn’t and how you can identify real and durable problems in a market. You need to to take risks, to be willing to fail and understand that you’re always learning.

Dropbox’s own critical video experiment resulted in its beta user requests growing from 5,000 to 75,000 users, validating critical hypotheses without investing in a single line of code. Starbucks’s first store attracted 1,000 visitors per day to a location that had previously never seen more than 200. Zappos’s website resulted in actual sales of shoes, which were fulfilled with purchases – at list price – from a local store.

Related: Game-Changing Lessons From Lean Start-Up Founder Steve Blank

Discuss results with advisors

Before starting the company, I created my own informal board of advisors, who included a venture investor, two technology CEOs, a business development executive and a technology founder. All were dedicated to my success, with no strings attached.

I met with them for coffee throughout the experimentation process, and always discussed with them what I was learning. Having talented colleagues to provide feedback and advice frequently produced new insights.

Rinse and repeat

Once you secure answers to your first hypotheses, it’s time for you to go back to the drawing board and create new hypotheses, design another experiment and test it. A hypothesis without an experiment does no good. You gain the most knowledge when you’re testing the ideas you propose.

Start the business

I equate the start of my company to an experiment I called “the sale.” After several months of developing hypotheses and running experiments, I had a good sense of where I could add strong and durable value for customers in the market. But what I hadn’t tested was price.

I hypothesised that a prospective customer would need to be willing to spend $50,000 annually – roughly the average price required to sustain the business model – on my product, to support the inside sales-driven model I was projecting. So, I designed an experiment around cold calling a handful of prospective customers and trying to convince them to purchase my minimum viable product for $50,000 per year.

In the process of being rejected, I hoped to learn about the additional features these companies needed to justify purchasing a product at that price point.

As part of the exercise, I first spoke with the CFO of a fast-growing technology company. While the CFO understood the problem I was addressing, he had almost no input on features, and no interest in paying for a solution. But then he surprised me by asking for another call the next day with his vice president of engineering and members of his team.

The assembled team not only had deep knowledge in the area in which I had built my MVP, but had already built many of my features themselves.

By the end of the call, the vice president of engineering made the surprising statement: “Sure, we’ll buy.” When faced with the potential for a sale, the first instinct of every good engineer is to do exactly what you shouldn’t: keep talking. Instead, I proceeded to explain how the CFO was hadn’t been convinced the previous day, and that maybe the engineering VP should talk to him before agreeing to a purchase.

“Our CFO is in the room right now,” the VP said. “We’ll buy. Just send us the contract.”

As I hung up,  my excitement at having a first customer was tempered by the reality that I had no contract to send, nor a business entity under which to extend it. Since my experiment had been designed for failure, I hadn’t given much thought to what to do when confronted with success. Thus began my next challenge: Creating a business entity and onboarding a first customer – fast.

Reach a conclusion and communicate it with peers

Starting a company is one of the most irrational acts you can do as a human being. You are taking great personal and professional risk for an unknown outcome. While there is no foolproof way to manage this uncertainty, there is a way to minimise the risk: cContinuous experimentation in the presence of customers. My company exists as a direct result of a commitment to experimentation, a route you should seriously consider when you start down your own entrepreneurial path.

This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.

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