Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Why context is more important than ideas

Everyone has ideas - they are like the air, everywhere and ubiquitous.  People who say they don't have any ideas are merely referring to their lack of ideas about a specific issue or in a specific setting.  Everyone has ideas, all the time.  What they often lack is context.  Few people understand the value and importance of context when creating new ideas.

What I mean by context is that there are plenty of challenges, problems and opportunities in the world that COULD be solved, but many of them aren't solved, even after the problems are clearly identified.  For example, we grow far more food than necessary to ensure everyone on the planet has enough to eat, but people still go hungry.  Most hunger is not a condition of a lack of food, but a lack of ability to distribute, or too much food in the wrong places, or political or cultural barriers for food.  So while there are many challenges that could be solved, there may be many issues that keep the issue from being solved.  And this is what good innovators should understand.

An idea is only as valuable as its defined context

What experienced and successful innovators know is that an idea is only as valuable as its context.  Understand the context, and you can create several different or even opposing ideas that may be valuable.  Start from an idea and you'll still need to define the appropriate context if one exists.  The good news is that everything I've written so far is true if you are a startup, trying to create a new company, or a corporate innovator trying to generate ideas to become part of a portfolio of products and services.

Approaching innovation like qualifying a sales prospect

Ideas, like sales processes, need to have appropriate qualifying criteria.  In the sales world, we believe we have a viable prospect when we identify someone who:
 - has a need
 - we can solve the need with existing products or services
 - the prospect has a budget
 - their need is creating pain that must be addressed quickly
 - the prospect has the ability and willingness to make a decision

These are common qualifying questions for a sales process, to understand if a potential prospect is a qualified sales candidate.  Prospects may show interest, but lack a budget or the ability to make a decision.  Qualified candidates demonstrate all of the factors listed above.  That does not mean that a specific offering will "win" because other alternatives may be in consideration, or other political factors may weigh on the decision.

Good innovators know that many of the same factors must exist for an idea to be successful.  If every idea were valuable, then innovation would be easy.  Since every idea must be placed into its appropriate context and evaluated, this means that far fewer ideas are actually interesting.

Getting the context right

So, when you have an idea, you must link the idea to:

  • A demonstrated need or an emerging need that does not yet have a solution.
    • In Blue Ocean Strategy, a hierarchy of needs is defined.  Unmet needs are needs that are recognized but not met yet.  Unarticulated needs are needs that will emerge, but customers simply don't know enough to try to address them.  The former are easier to serve, since they are often evident but overlooked.  The latter are more difficult because they require insight into future conditions.
  • A need that is important to solve and that people want to solve
    • There are plenty of needs or issues that people are simply willing to live with.  They are aware of the need but the urgency or importance of the need simply does not lead them to decide to make changes, or the effort to change to a new solution seems so daunting that they are willing to live with a little inconvenience in order to keep things the same.
  •  An openness to risk and novelty
    • Anytime you create a new solution, you ask consumers to work differently, act differently, purchase differently than they do today.  That means that the consumers you target must be open to new solution, some sense of risk and novelty.  This is true both for the customers or consumers of the idea, as well as the internal teams that must produce and provide the idea.
  • Some ability to illustrate the potential valuable impact of the idea for the consumer
    • Benefits are often hard to capture, and most ideas end up generating some but not all of the benefit they promise.  You must understand the expected benefit and be able to communicate that benefit to the potential consumer to understand an idea's value.
  • Your company's ability to create a solution that addresses the need in the context of the customer or consumer.

So you can see that most organizations have it backwards.  They generate ideas that seem valuable and then fail to develop valuable products and services because they never took the time to determine the most valuable context.  You can work backwards from an idea to the appropriate context but few people do, and most ideas are shaped and influenced by a handful of people who had a specific context in mind.

What you should do is first get the context right - what needs exist?  Who have these needs?  Are they willing to address these needs or to change how they do things?  How much novelty will they endure?  What benefits are important to them?  If you understand this context, then you can shorten the time to generate good ideas, generate fewer ideas and enjoy more uptake of your best ideas.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:06 AM


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