I was with a software company the other week when they made a real breakthrough with an idea that had been floating around the management team for – they tell me – at least three years.  Interestingly, the MD had been championing the idea but had somehow been unable to get his colleagues as excited as he was about it.  His frustration was mounting that his vision wasn’t shared.  In his mind, this new product idea was a great fit with the overall business direction, and, he felt, would be a real winner with customers…but none of his colleagues seemed in any way interested.

The breakthrough came when the MD, on the brink of giving up on persuading his colleagues to at least consider the idea, agreed that we should have one more try to explain what it was all about.  I asked the MD to describe, using simple language and structure for communicating ideas (described later), what the idea was.  My key rules were, the language had to be simple enough so that anybody with no knowledge of their industry could understand it, and there had to be clear and obvious logic connecting the different elements of the idea.  Following these rules, the MD made his pitch to his assembled colleagues.  The result was immediate.  All round the room, various virtual light bulbs went off over the assembled group and a collective cry of “ah…so that’s what you mean” went up, followed by a unanimous and urgent commitment to get the ball rolling.  Since then, a project team has been assembled and is making really good progress in doing some validation work before deciding if they should commit development time and budget to the idea.

The situation described here isn’t at all unusual.  In fact, some research claims that 90% of new ideas never get actioned because they are simply not understood by anyone other than the originator (and sometimes not even the originator!).  If this is anything like true, then ideation, brainstorming, and other methods of idea creation may well be a massive waste of effort.

In our view, it’s possible to greatly reduce the risk of this wasted effort by putting a little bit of extra focus into considering how it is that we communicate a new idea.  The following are four good reasons that we should consider this additional investment at the start of the ideation process.

Firstly, as illustrated in the opening paragraphs of this article, any new idea needs to be understood by multiple other stakeholders in order to make any progress towards commercial reality.  Not only do others need to understand the idea, but they need to be able to understand it quickly and easily. If they need to work hard to understand it then they won’t!  It’s as stark as that.  This applies to colleagues, potential customers, potential investors, suppliers, manufacturers, advertisers, and host of others.  This is especially true for more innovative ideas – those that are very different from the current way of doing things.  In those situations, there is much more potential for confusion and misunderstanding amongst stakeholder groups. The most successful ideas are invariably those that are simple to understand and communicate to others without the need for specialist knowledge or cognisance of jargon.

Second, being disciplined about using a structure for ideas is also a really good way of thinking the idea through in the first place.  A good structure is in fact both a communication tool and a thinking tool.  The requirement to use simple language and a solid flow of logic forces the idea originator to think it through and make sure that the idea is more than just a notion or a concept.  A good idea will have substance and tangibility that will translate readily into solid plans for investigation or implementation.  Without that tangible quality, an idea will never get beyond the discussion stage into something practical and ultimately of value.

Third, a well-communicated idea allows much better critique and evaluation.  A clearly articulated idea will enable assumptions, risks and uncertainties associated with development and execution to be more easily identified which will then in turn enable faster and more straightforward exploration of the idea’s feasibility.  A vaguely described idea never has enough tangibility to allow potential risks and assumptions to be brought to the fore.  This is vital since thorough feasibility testing is a critical step on the way to successful implementation.

Finally, a well communicated idea will make for much better implementation.  The implementation phase of new idea introduction is often subject to mission creep or the addition of unintended, unnecessary features or elements.  A clear blueprint for the idea will make it much easier for those tasked with bringing it to life, ensuring they know clearly the intention, scope, and requirements without misinterpretation or deviation.

There may be many ways to successfully communicate an idea, but the structure we usually recommend is as follows:

  1. Idea Title – Usually a good idea to give the idea a name in just a few words (no more than six)
  2. Description – What is the idea?  What is being proposed?  What is the form of the idea, the “thing” itself?
  3. Customer – Who is the idea aimed at?  Who benefits most from this idea?  Who would be most excited by it?
  4. Problem – What problem is the idea meant to solve?  What issue is the customer experiencing that the idea addresses?
  5. Benefit – What does the idea deliver that relates directly to the problem?  What main benefit should the customer experience?
  6. Newness – Explain how this idea is different to what is done at present?  How is this better than what is currently available?  Why should the customer even consider this idea?

The following example illustrates how this structure works in practice.

Idea TitlePain relief patches
DescriptionSticking-plaster style patch with painkiller embedded in the adhesive which applies the pain relief in constant dose, directly to the affected area, over 12-24 hours
CustomerPeople at risk of heart attack or strokes
ProblemMany pain relief options taken orally increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, as well as other unwanted side-effects
BenefitSafer way to take effective pain relief
NewnessThis is the only convenient solution to deliver pain relief without side effects

Clearly there are a lot of unknowns and assumptions associated with this idea, but they should be easy to identify and explore for feasibility given the way the idea has been described.  Undoubtedly as the unknowns are investigated and solutions to problems are identified, then the idea will develop to a richer and more thorough specification.  At the outset, however, what is needed is a clear vision and intention for the idea – enough to enable easy communication to all parties.

Whilst a verbal description of an idea is a good starting point, once an idea passes the first tests of assessment, then a fuller communication of the idea will also involve what we call a “idea numbers model”.

In fact, we believe that the most complete (and most valuable) communication of an idea will be the verbal description AND the numbers model together.  To be clear, we don’t suggest that every idea expressed is developed into a numbers model.  This effort is only for those that reach the top of any initial ranking – perhaps based on alignment with strategy, the level of excitement the idea generates, or other similar criteria.  To make any further progress, however, we firmly believe that the numbers model is required to provide a fuller description of the idea

The numbers model is usually a first set of assumptions about key dimensions.  So, for example, when the idea is for a new product, then the key numbers will be related to things like;

  • Sales volume assumptions
  • Possible pricing
  • Business model
  • Possible development costs
  • Internal margin expectations

At this stage, these are not forecasts – they are starting assumptions.  These assumptions, however, can make a big difference to whether an idea might be viewed as feasible or not.  Stating these assumptions isn’t as daunting as it might look – it’s just about ballpark thinking and there are several methods readily available to help with this.  The difference when these numbers are stated is often dramatic.  Adding initial assumptions on key numbers helps get ideas off the starting blocks.  It’s difficult for people to get excited about an idea unless they can have some sense of the scale – how much difference they might expect the idea to make.  This scaling provides a real boost to the momentum behind an idea and can lead to much faster exploration and, in turn, implementation.

So, in summary, paying some attention to the communication of an idea from the get-go makes a massive difference to the likelihood that the idea will be at least considered for further investigation.  If you care about your idea, then why wouldn’t you?