Have a great idea? How to stop your company from killing it.

Here is a cartoon I did a few years ago about what happens to great ideas in companies:

Idea mortality is very high in companies, and ideas often fall at the first hurdles of apathy, hostility and internal company processes. “Great idea, but it can’t be done!” is how internal stakeholders (a.k.a. the people you need agreement, support and sponsorship from) greet most ideas.

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” – T. Edison

It’s not surprising, as turning good ideas into successful products or services usually requires a combination of enormous investment and effort with vision, timing and luck. And there are plenty of examples of successful and innovative companies who had great ideas, but who failed to bring them to market.

Xerox invented the PC, Kodak invented the digital camera, and Yahoo was once in a position to buy Google AND Facebook.

In 1955, Fortune Magazine published the first of their Fortune 500 lists of the 500 largest and most successful companies. 60 years later, only 71 of those companies are still standing.

“Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” – T. Edison

If having the great idea is the tip of the iceberg of what needs to happen to turn a great idea into a successful product or service, then the first thing you need to do is persuade your stakeholders that your idea is worth investing their time, attention and resources in.

The first of the 3 things you need to get your idea adopted: a story

If you’ve had a great idea, you will need to pitch it to the people who will allow and enable you to make it happen. A good pitch requires careful preparation and strategy. You are like a start-up looking for investment.

The first thing to remember is that the most accurate and well-researched figures in the world will never be as compelling as a good story.

The elements of a good story include:

  • A story structure: a problem – a solution – a resolution
  • A human face: ideally customers or end users
  • Images that engage the senses, especially visual
  • Emotions: unhappy and then delighted customers or end user

“To hell with facts! We need stories!” – Ken Kesey

Stories are such powerful instruments of persuasion that sometimes that’s all you need. A case in point is Theranos, a Silicon Valley company started up by Elizabeth Holmes in 2003 when she was just 19, who claimed to have invented cheap blood-testing technologies that could save millions of lives around the world.

Holmes became a symbol of progress, innovation and female empowerment. At its peak Theranos was valued at $9 billion, on the strength of “a really great story” – which journalists failed to check, and in 2015 it emerged that the technologies had never worked.

(NB. I am using Theranos to illustrate the power – rather than the ethics – of story-telling. Story-telling is just a tool which can be used for good or for evil purposes.)

The second of the 3 things you need to get your idea adopted: a Devil’s Advocate

The second thing you need is a Devil’s Advocate who will tell you all about the weaknesses of your idea. There is no shortage of these in companies, but you need to talk to them before you make your pitch. Great sales people anticipate customer objections, and are ready with counter-arguments. Bullet-proof your idea against every possible criticism, objection or denial, by either eliminating problems or finding solutions and work-arounds for them.

The third of the three things you need to get your idea adopted: intense customer focus

The third thing you need is to be able to show how the customer will access and interact with your product or service.

Edison, (one of my favourite innovators), did not invent the light-bulb. The idea for the light-bulb had existed for a long time but what Edison did manage to do was produce one that worked for more than 5 minutes. But his real achievement was creating a new lighting system and a new industry.

Edison’s vision predicted a central power station for electric lighting that he would create for the whole of New York City from which a network of electric wires would deliver current for small household lights.

Not all great ideas need to be on this scale, of course, but the story illustrates that there was no real need to perfect the light-bulb until Edison came up with a business model that demonstrated how the product would be accessed and used by the customer – in this case, every household – who, in addition to needing light-bulbs, would also need an electricity supply.

The iPhone was revolutionary in the same way because it came with its own marketplace of related services (iTunes, apps, etc.).

How it’s done in Amazon

In 2004 Jeff Bezos banned his senior team from using PowerPoint presentations and told them that from then on they would have to present their ideas in narrative form in the shape of a 4-page memo. He said:

The reason writing a good 4 page memo is harder than “writing” a 20 page powerpoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how things are related.”

This instruction has since evolved into the “Jeff Bezos 6-pager” with a more detailed format, which anyone in Amazon who wants to pitch an idea has to follow. The structure of the 6-pager is:

  1. The Press Release: including the product name, value proposition (sub-heading), the problem the product solves and how it solves it, quotes from the company and customer
  2. FAQs: where you try to anticipate every problem or query the customer and stakeholders could have
  3. The Customer Experience: show how the product or service will be delivered and how the customer interacts with it, using diagrams and mock-ups if necessary.
  4. The User Manual: 3 sections – concepts, how to and reference.

The 6-pager requires story-telling, devil’s advocates and intense customer focus.

The press release is story-telling, the FAQs are responses to the potential criticisms of any devil’s advocate and the whole process requires intense customer focus. The 6-pager is hard work for anyone wanting to pitch an idea and can take weeks to prepare, but it a powerful way of ensuring that good ideas make it through the pitch.

And finally, if you have a good idea you want to propose to your company remember that for your idea to make it you will need great perseverance and resilience.

As Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

What are your experiences of getting your company to adopt your great idea?

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