Photo: Peter Jackson via Flickr
The other week I was helping the leadership team of an intriguing startup in Shanghai grapple with an interesting question: What’s next? The company’s core offering was coming together nicely, but it knew that long-term success required developing new products, services, and platforms. The team had tons of ideas, but wasn’t sure which ones it should prioritise.This is a common problem inside large companies as well. While corporate leaders sometimes think that they lack good ideas, more often their real challenge is to quickly separate good ideas from bad ones.
I shared my general gut checklist with the Shanghai team, and it led to a good discussion. But the team wanted more — particularly around how they could learn more about market demand to help with idea prioritization.
So, on my flight back to Singapore I drafted the following three thoughts for the CEO:
- Don’t trust what people say they will do. Trust what they do, or what they have already demonstrated they will/want to do. A company should go to potential customers to get deeper insight about adjacent opportunities that are under consideration. But take anything potential customers say with a shaker of salt. There are things they might say they won’t pay for that they will, and things that they say they will pay for that they won’t. What I like to do is first look at the things they are already paying for, or look at places where people are following complicated behaviours because things that exist right now aren’t affordable or accessible. That’s a pretty good sign of opportunity. Even better is to find a way to come up with what Steve Blank would call a “minimal viable product,” get out, and test it.
- Remember everything you learned in high school science class. People sometimes make the pursuit of new opportunities a heavily theoretical exercise. They study, and study, and study. And plan, and plan, and plan. The thinking behind those activities is valuable, but you often still know precious little if all you do is study and plan. I generally subscribe to the teaching of Rita McGrath: imagine success, and then ask what would need to be true for success to happen. For the most critical assumptions, develop hypotheses and run experiments. Peter Sims has a great book coming out called Little Bets that is a must-read on this topic.
- Get inspiration from outside. organisations get very myopic very quickly. They look to see what big and small competitors are doing, and base decisions on that. I like to frame problems “horizontally”: define the problem precisely, look for anyone in the world who has already solved that problem, figure out how to adapt the solution to your circumstance, and you are off. The process behind this is explained cogently in David Murray’s book Borrowing Brilliance.
I always feel a bit guilty when I condense a complicated topic to three points, but if you too are working on sifting through a long list of ideas, I hope these tips help.
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