Why You Need to FOCUS – Forget Ideas, Start with Problems

In the rush to innovate, we jump to solutions, look for silver bullets. We cool hunt. Crowd source. Idea storm.

But there is a problem with ideas. Sure they are fantastic for a fledgling startup, but they are dangerous, time consuming and unproductive for most corporates. Unfortunately, one of the first responses to a “call” for more innovation is to ask for “big ideas”.

A better approach is to forget ideas and put out a call for “problems worth solving”. It’s the approach that I have been following for years and it has distinct advantages:

  • Focus on business value – there is an immediate connection between any subsequent ideas and the business value that needs to be created
  • Ownership – you can pinpoint a “business owner” who has a vested interest in the problem being solved
  • Crowd solving – it’s easier to direct structured and unstructured teams to solve the challenge
  • Understanding and articulation – working with the problem owner means that there is a clear understanding and articulation of the challenge. It means everyone is “on the same page”
  • Systems win – in the corporate world, systems win. Taking a systematic approach to solving problems rather than pursuing ideas means that business value can be retained, capacity can be sustained and velocity can be built into (or on the edge of your business).

Once you have your problem sets, you’ll find it’s much easier to get started on that next innovation.

Why the Most Passionate Attract Us

There is do doubt that we are drawn to passionate people. Charismatic, energetic, and purposeful individuals tend to attract us like moths to a flame. Interestingly, it doesn’t really matter what that passion is … the sheer energy of their performance – their life – brings us closer to them. It brings us closer to their passion.

The passionate, are for the most part, master storytellers. But they are also deeply aware of those who are SUSCEPTIBLE to the story – what we would normally call “the audience”. BJ Fogg suggests that there are three important elements that will create influence. The Fogg Behaviour Model identifies three crucial elements that will turn an idea into action:

  • Motivation
  • Ability
  • Trigger

Take a look at Lily Cheng’s video on Why Twitter is Persuasive. A student with Fogg’s Persuasive Technology Lab, she explains the three-way connection that we have with Twitter. However, for my money, we need to dig deeper into the notion of motivation. Sure, we need to have it. But what is it? Where does it come from? And why does it transmute us from something/someone inward-looking into someone/something that transforms those around us? I think Sean Howard’s excellent presentation for Toronto Ignite goes some way to explain.

The Promiscuous Idea

CK, George & GregWhen Drew McLellan and I pulled together the first The Age of Conversation book with 100 of the world’s leading bloggers, social media was still a rough and ready frontier. Two more editions and three years later, many of us are still having the same conversations – partly because more businesses and more people are beginning to see value in the space, but also because innovation is like a spiral, folding back on itself in ever more complex ways.

With this in mind, I thought I’d publish here, my article from the first book – the Promiscuous Idea. To me, it still feels as relevant as it did in 2007. If you haven’t got a copy, consider buying one. It’s a great primer – and all the profits (still) go to a great cause.

The Promiscuous Idea

We are living in a time of proliferation. Never before has the marketplace of ideas been so free, the barriers to entry so low and the willingness to collaborate so powerful. In moments, a concept can be explained, shared and tracked on a single blog — on the other side of the world, this idea can be modified, expanded upon and discussed. Seconds pass and more voices are heard — a version transmutes into new forms … being picked up as a podcast, a video, an older-style presentation deck. From a single creative impulse, a legion of additions, modifications and transmutations can spread in minutes, hours, days and weeks.

Even months later an idea can come full circle. Someone, somewhere can stumble upon a “stale” idea, investing it with new energy, new context and a new perspective and the cycle of proliferation begins again. What this means is that our ideas are constantly in a process of reinvention.

What links an idea and draws us to it is the “story”. And the power and gravitational pull of the story brings us back to it time and again. In the Age of Conversation, whether we are marketers, activists, educators, politicians, academics or citizens of the world, we are all becoming the connected storytellers of this new era. This presents new challenges but also significant
opportunities for brands, consumers and communities.

We are now dealing with a different type of story. Where once we had a beginning, middle and end, as readers and storytellers we can fall into a story at any point. We can link into the middle of a raging debate or witness the genesis of an idea that can change the world, and the narrative that we
are dealing with is no longer linear but multi-textual, layered, overlapping and promiscuous. The ideas and stories care not for their creator but freely leap from one mind to the next — sometimes appearing simultaneously across the globe — with storytellers tapping into a powerful worldwide zeitgeist.

The new art of conversation relies not on a sense of ownership but on a willing openness on the part of storytellers of all kinds. In fact, the jealous storyteller may well find that “their” ideas, brands, concepts or other “intellectual property” will laughingly thumb its nose at its creator and walk off, hand-in-hand with the idea-next-door. Whether we like it or not, our brands, ideas and
stories are no longer our own … they are out there promiscuously reinventing themselves word by word.

What Goes Around Comes Around

creepy merrygoround
Originally uploaded by Buddha Rhubarb.

Ideas have a currency and a time. Sometimes YOUR idea will coincide with the ideas of others and will find a ready market. Sometimes your idea will be considered "old" or more progressively "ahead of its time". But if the market is not ready for your idea … if it is not a COMPLIANT idea, then it will disappear into the multitude of messages that bombard us all daily.

I have been thinking through the anatomy of a compliant idea for some time … but it seems that they are easy to identify when you see them … but difficult to explain. For a start, they are slippery — they appear to come from out of nowhere … arriving with their hands on their hips and their sleeves rolled up. Make no mistake, the compliant idea arrives ready to do business.

They are surprisingly easy to implement. Because they are flexible, the compliant idea can be readily applied. They bend, stretch and go around corners. You can cut them up and watch them multiply. They are ideas for the web 2.0 world. Not only that, the compliant idea keeps coming back. It will refuse to go away, and will keep knocking on the door of your creative mind until you do something with it. They are like roundabouts.

I think that the reason compliant ideas are so persistent is that they are embedded deep within our unconscious mind. Our brains work away on them in the background, making connections, firming up pathways and finally when fully formed, they burst through to our conscious mind.

Interestingly, the blogosphere has succeeded in changing some of this. Sure you need to have a good idea, even one that works nicely for and with you … but you also need to make sure that your market is ready for your idea. Now, you can do much smaller trials, create niche experiences and market to those selected audiences very cost effectively.

Like Seth Godin says in this post, "Starbucks couldn’t have launched in 1970. We weren’t ready." It is not just about your idea, and it is not just about its execution. It is also, VERY importantly, about your MARKET. And if they are not listening, then really, you are just wasting your breath.


Ideas Are Cheap

Area     H    E    A    P

In a recent post I was wondering how MANY ideas are enough to present to clients … and then this article over at Chuck Frey’s Innovation Weblog got me thinking further.

The reason that it is easy to throw so many ideas at a client is because they are CHEAP to produce. Even good ideas are a dime a dozen! Many marketers and creatives can generate hundreds of ideas in a single brainstorming session … some may later be discarded, or modified, or otherwise transformed — but the problem is not the NUMBER of ideas. The problem is not even the QUALITY of the ideas. The problem is in their COMPLIANCE — how easy are the ideas to implement or execute?

In a busy world, the Compliant Idea is going to win. It will win with your boss and will probably win with your clients … it will probably also win with your audience. The Compliant Idea will have a wrap-around story, it will have an infectious nature and it will be easily transportable. Most importantly, it will allow your audience to pick it up and run with it.

Of course, even the most compliant of ideas are going to provide challenges when it comes to implementation, which is where all good ideas are tested (as are way too many bad ones). But you will see and hear a Compliant Idea from miles away … they sound like steam trains. They give my friend Katie goosebumps.

If ideas are cheap (and they are), keep brainstorming until you find one that gives you goosebumps. Keep going until you hear the whistle blowing, then climb aboard for the ride.


Update: Also see the category on Compliant Ideas.

With thanks to Mike Wagner for the link to Diego Rodriguez’s Metacool.

Title courtesy of Spell with Flickr.