Idea Management: A brief primer on the basic path that creators, innovators, and change agents follow

Idea Management: A brief primer on the basic path that creators, innovators, and change agents follow

I have a great idea!

Join the club.

Everyday, all seven billion of our planet’s inhabitants have ideas. Good ideas, bad ideas, goofy ideas, ginormous ideas, impossible ideas, mundane ideas and every other possible permutation of describing words and “idea”. But you’re different and you’re special. No, I’m not being sarcastic in saying that. You are legitimately unique and your ideas are special, and the world is in dire need of them. So, just how do you get your ideas to manifest into real life? How do you get that idea for a new cake mixer that you’ve told your entire family about and make it into a real device? How do you start that organization, event, or initiative that you keep mentioning to friends over coffee? I’ll walk you through the basic steps, and provide reasons for taking each, but before I do, I’ll lay some of the groundwork for my thinking. I make several basic assumptions in this process. Your time and energy are valuable because they are limited. Your ideas are good. All of them. You want to do something with your valuable time and energy.

Step One – Write everything down!

This seems like a basic piece of advice, and perhaps one you’ve heard before, but it’s absolutely essential. Many people have many worthwhile ideas that they try their best to remember but which fade away with time. Recording your ideas into a reliable storage medium (on paper, in e-mail to yourself, in lipstick on the bathroom mirror) has several benefits. This method allows you to store more ideas. We’ll return to why that’s relevant in a later step. This method allows you to see an idea as you originally had it, not warped by memory or other people’s input. It’s always the first step because without it, there may not be a second.

Why is this step important? The value of an idea forgotten is always nothing.

Step Two – Is it possible?

Have you ever had to call tech support for an issue and the first thing they ask you is whether your device is plugged in? This question is the equivalent of that. Of all the ideas I’ve ever come up with, a full half of them were completely impossible. We’ll detail why every idea, including impossible ideas, should be written down first, evaluated second, and kept anyway in a later step. This is a simple pass/fail test. If it’s possible, move on. If it’s impossible, keep the idea in the storage medium for later. For clarity, the meaning of impossible here is not “something incredibly unlikely”. Ideas that are merely incredibly unlikely should be pursued, perhaps even with greater vigor than ideas that are “possible” or “probable” successes to execute. The meaning of impossible here is “cannot be done”. If your idea is “round squares”, your idea is impossible. If your idea is “rounded squares” or “edged off circles” or “an object that is round when looked at one way but square when looked at another”, then it is not only possible, but mundane.


Why is this step important? Time and energy spent working on what is fundamentally impossible is time and energy wasted. Your time and energy are valuable, remember?

Step Three – Do I, personally, want to act on this idea?

It seems like a silly question, but it absolutely is not. There are so many ideas that people have that they cannot, will not, or have no interest in bringing to life that there are websites full of these forfeited ideas put out into the either so that some other person with the time, the energy, the resources and/or the interest can work on them. You have to make the distinction between an idea that you really like the sound of, perhaps even one you want to see materialized in the future, and an idea that you want to take an active role in bringing to life. Additionally, this will be the type for you to answer the follow-up question of “What do I want to happen after I act on this idea” if it is one you want to act on. THe answer to that question will determine a lot of the ways you act on manifesting your idea.

Why is this step important? Better to find out earlier, rather than later, that the idea you have is one you have no interest in working on personally.

Step Four – Is this something that I, and the world, have a need for?

This is an important question that is often overlooked, underutilized, or only paid lip service. Firstly, you can’t answer this question by yourself. Depending on the type of thinker you are, you’re always going to under or overvalue your ideas by a dramatic margin. You need real data to ground your assessment of the need for your idea. Does this improve on the design of an existing object or procedure? Does this solve a problem that you and others have?

Why is this step important? There is no need to reinvent the wheel. More importantly, there’s no reason to invent a wheel-like object that does not improve on the design and has no applications. When a reason does arise for that, such as  with the invention of the tire or the lego wheel, then it becomes needed.

Step Five – Am I willing to commit to this project?

This is the last question in the phase before moving to steps actively involved in materializing ideas. Are you willing to commit? Or, rather, is this an idea you’re passionate about? Being passionate about an idea is more than about being excited to start. Just about every project that isn’t breathtakingly daunting is exciting in the beginning. Being passionate about an idea is having a serious emotional investment in seeing it come to life. It’s what will carry you through the dip in motivation, resources, resolve, over obstacles and through to the end. Anything shy of that is unlikely to be enough to push you to remain committed to the idea.

Why is this step important? An incomplete project is often worth less than nothing. How can it be worth less than nothing? Because failing to finish is frequently worth nothing, minus the cost of everything you poured into the project up until that point.

Step Six – Who is my market?

You began to answer this question when you asked whether there was a need for your idea. If, for example, your idea is “there should be naps at my place of employment”, then in investigating your answer to whether you and others could use naps while at work will give you an idea of your target market. This step merely involves pinning down exactly who you’re talking about. It doesn’t matter how broad or narrowly you want to define the market, so long as you define it. There is, for example, a market for e-ink displays. These are the displays present in most black and white e-reader devices. Who is this market? Anyone who purchased an e-reader whose screen stopped working and requires a replacement. Additionally, anyone who wants to create some related device that uses the same type of screen. That would be members of the maker community, electronics hobbyists, and inventors. Your nap idea’s market may be just You and your colleague, Sleepy Janet, or it may be every night person in your company.

Why is this step important? Part of the function of an idea and how it is developed is who it will be used by and how. Failure to do this assessment up front will result in having to do it later on, at a much higher cost in your time and energy.

Step Seven – Prototype. Quickly!

This is the crucial point in the process. This is the threshold, the precipice, the dividing line. TIme for a leap of faith. Your idea, but smaller, as quickly as humanly possible. The heart of your idea, on a scale that’s easily achievable and made now. For example, if your idea is for a national book club, pick a book and get some people to read it with you. If your idea is for a new type of board game, draw out the board on a sheet of paper and work out the game mechanics, and play it a few times or ask others to play it. If your idea is for a revolutionary new device, see if you can get a crude basic version built or build it yourself. This step is often painted as the most painstaking part of the process but going from having an idea in your head to your idea existing in real life is fairly easy if you move quickly and start small. This step is not complete until you have a functioning prototype of your idea.

Why is this step important? The energy that we go into projects with can wane over time. It’s important to tackle some of the hardest parts of any project when you have the most energy and excitement to do so. Additionally, small achievements bolster our resolve to pursue larger ones. That one little prototype can give you the inertia to go on to refine, redesign, and reproduce that idea.