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Podcast: Managing ideas: how to generate, filter and judge innovative thinking

Tom

Hi, welcome to the Product Leadership Podcast from Lighthouse London, where we talk about how to validate launch and maintain successful digital products with product owners, innovators, digital experts and founders. I’m Tom. I’m joined today for the first time in ages by Dan, my co-founder at Lighthouse. Hello Dan.

Dan

Hello Tom.

Tom

Hello. Long time.

Dan

Yeah. Haven’t seen you in a while.

Tom

Yeah, since Friday, Saturday in fact. Today we’re going to be talking about Product Leadership Framework, something new that we’ve come out with. Dan, you’ve been doing loads of work on this recently. Why don’t you give us a little bit of an intro to what you’ve been up to.

Dan

I spent the last month we’ll say thinking about ideas. By that I don’t mean I’ve been thinking about ideas, I’ve been thinking about ideas. I haven’t been having ideas, I’ve been thinking about ideas as things.

Tom

As a topic, the topic of ideas.

Dan

If that makes sense. Yeah, it’s a hard thing to say though because it just sounds I’ve been thinking of ideas. I think the reason I’ve been doing that is because they’re so important in what we do and how people innovate, but they’re also very confused. I think one thing I’ve come out of it with is that I now hate the idea of a light bulb as an icon for an idea.

Tom

I’m pretty sick of that, yeah.

Dan

Not just because it’s a bit stock, and it’s definitely stock.

Tom

Well stock.

Dan

But because it completely misrepresents what an idea is. I think it probably came from the fact that people say, “Hey, I’ve had a spark, a spark of an idea.” Which is fair because a spark would catch fire something and burn quite slowly, and in the right conditions would burn really brightly. That’s exactly what an idea is.

Tom

Pretty much.

Dan

It is, yeah, but a light bulb that just comes on, ding, the idea is there fully formed, fully working? That’s a complete myth. We work with a lot of people and everything always starts with ideas. People either have too many ideas or they don’t have any ideas or, almost worse than both of those things, they have one idea and they bet everything on that one idea. They say, “I’ve got this product idea. It’s going to change the world. I know exactly what it’s going to look like. Here’s the spec, can you build it for us?”

Tom

Yeah, we’ve seen that many times.

Dan

That happens all the time. I get why it happens, it happens because to communicate your idea you have to think of it in a form that’s very abstract to say, “I’ve had an idea,” and someone say, “What is it?” You say, “I’ve no idea yet.” That doesn’t make any sense. You naturally think of ideas in their finished form but in what we do, you have to break the idea down, take it back to the reason it exists, the problem you’re trying to solve. Ideas often are solutions. The way we like to build you’ve got to understand the problem. In this idea, this Product Leadership Framework we’re working on, I think the most important bit, one of the most important bits to get right is this idea component.

Tom

We should probably step back a little bit and describe what the Product Leadership Framework is. For those who haven’t seen our recent newsletters and seen the site, this is essentially the way that we approach building digital products coming from our experience of doing this for 10 years or so now. It’s a collection of ways that can help you push out successful products. Essentially that’s what it is. There’s various components of that that we’ll talking about loads in the next few months.

Dan

Yeah. It’s part methodology, part manifesto I suppose. We’re basically saying, “Here’s the hard lessons we’ve learned about how you take an idea and bring it through to something you can launch, a digital product.” How do we take those lessons and make sure that everyone we work with gets the benefits of them, that no one we work with makes the big mistakes which killed these products dead? We felt the best way of doing that would be to document it, to turn it into a framework that we can always refer to and is essentially the way we’ve run our product strategy and our product management.

Laura

Hey, this is Laura from Lighthouse. Our product sprints are the perfect way to get ideas validated and in front of customers in just a few days. To find out more, head over to wearelighthouse.com/product-sprint.

Tom

Jumping back to ideas, that’s obviously the first part of our framework, so the first thing that we like to talk about. Tell us a bit more about the way we approach ideas.

Dan

Again, it depends where someone’s starting from. If they’re starting from a position of having no ideas, then the important thing is to have some. One thing people will often get wrong is where ideas come. Within an organisation, ideas often come from the top. They come from higher management. Although those ideas can sometimes be good, your best ideas are more likely to come from your frontline really, the people who experience your customers’ problems the most regularly. Be that someone in support or someone in sales or someone that’s actually getting customer feedback directly and can build a real instinct of what might work.
People don’t know where to look to find ideas within their organisations. Actually those ideas are probably lying around all over the place, in, as I say, that sales person’s mind or that support person’s book of notes. It’s about finding a way to gather those ideas without the bias of, “Oh, this one came from the CEO, so it’s probably better than this one that came from the person that only started a month ago,” because that bias won’t help. What you really want to do at the beginning is create a lot of ideas, and this is why you should think of it as a light bulb moment. No one’s going to have a fully formed amazing idea, but what they’re going to have is understandings about customer problems and things that you can build ideas of.
I often looked at it, if someone comes to us with one idea and says, “Let’s build it,” it’s almost like you put a plant pot and you’re hoping to put seeds in it and you’re hoping that flower’s going to grow and everyone’s going to love it. Whereas if someone comes to us and says, “Here’s my understanding of the problems our customers face,” that’s like you’ve got a field and you can chuck as many seeds into that as you want, and you have much more chance of one of the things that grows being amazing. You have one idea, you get one shot. Whereas as what we’re trying to instil in people is let’s have as many ideas as we can around the subject of your customers’ problems, and then don’t worry about them not being fully formed, that’s the next stage.
Once you’ve got those idea, once you’ve come to us with a problem of, “I haven’t got any ideas,” and we’ve actually had some, then it’s about how you think about those ideas in terms of business value, because you want to quickly take an idea and basically document what’s good about it. Get good quickly, saying, “Right, here’s the problem it’s trying to solve. Here’s the value of solving that problem. Here’s how we’re going to approach solving it and here’s what we’re going to do next.”
If you can get that installed in your organization’s culture, then it’s not just going to work for that one time you try and find ideas, it’s going to be every time someone thinks of an idea, they’re going to put it through that little filter in their head. “Can I hit those four things?” And then out the back of that, it’s either going to be like, “No, that’s not ready,” or, “Yes, let me put that forward.”

Tom

Yeah, it becomes a repeatable process they can have internally. Groups of people can run for through this stuff on their own or with their colleagues or in many different ways. You’ll soon start to get a picture of what maybe just needs development as an idea, as well as something that doesn’t quite fit the criteria and needs a bit more work, or which of the front runners that are there ready for experimentation and take it to the next phase.

Dan

Yeah, you’ll go from problem one, no ideas, to problem two, too many ideas.

Tom

Yeah, probably quite quickly.

Dan

Yeah, absolutely. Much quicker than you’re probably expecting because if you actually work out a way to get those ideas out of the people you work with, or get those ideas out of your customers, they’re the best people to get the ideas from, then you’ll suddenly find you’ve got too much stuff. You can’t do it all, so then it’s about having a system of how you manage those ideas. You want what you would call an idea pipeline. You want to have a load of ideas, some of them that are just sitting there in a document saying, “Here’s the problem this solves and here’s the value you might get from solving it.” All the way through to ideas that are being put out and tested in front of customers. You want to have this constant conveyor belt of innovation really.
Problem two is having too many ideas. At that point you want to be filtering them down using whatever techniques you want really, but you need to put them through that lens of the customer. Getting them out and putting them in front of the customer is always the best way to do that, do that through prototyping, do that through user research. But whatever you do, don’t just sit there with them or doing the one which everyone think is going to work. There’s a step before development, before you start properly investing in an idea, that validation stage you have to go through.

Tom

I think we’ve been getting some good results trying to help clients come up with ideas. It goes back to that issue about internal bias. If the CEO or someone says, “This is the next thing to do,” everyone says, “Yeah. Okay, fine. We’ll go and do that.” But the way that we want to help people, or the place we want to help people to get to is having a way to treat all ideas the same, mark them against a similar criteria so that you do get the strongest ones coming, not just the ones that come from the higher ups.

Dan

Yeah, not just, “Oh, I went to a conference and now everyone’s talking about virtual reality,” or, “Oh, we need to build a chat bot.” That’s no place for an idea to start really.

Tom

Yeah.

Dan

As I say, if you’ve done the ground work of understanding your customers, then that will naturally gravitate into ideas like, “Oh, we need a chat bot for this,” but a chat bot because the final step if you like. Saying, “We understand the problem we need to solve. Now, how could this be solves?” Well, a chat bot is a candidate for that.

Tom

Or it could be another three different things that you experiment with in a light way prototypes or just running simple user research and experiments in other ways.

Dan

Absolutely. I think it’s really important to understand that you’re trying to understand problems, not necessarily come up with great solutions. When you test an idea, you may test it in a different way to what its final form will be. You might well have something that would work amazingly as a chat bot once fully built and fully invested in, but the first iteration, you’re not really testing whether or not people want a chat bot, you’re testing whether or not the problem is a big enough thing to warrant solving. You might find that out through face to face surveys, or through one to one mentorship, and then say, “How do we scale this?” That would be, say a chat bot. As I say, I think the key things we’re learning about ideas are that ideas that are founder in a problem are much more powerful than ideas that are just a … solution.
Hi, this is Dan. I’m head of strategy here at Lighthouse. We found that one of the main problems our clients faced was generating and filtering great product ideas. We came up with the Innovation Day to show them that those ideas were lying all around their organisation, they just had to look for them. If you want to run an Innovation Day, go to wearelighthouse.com/service/innovation-day.
It’s mostly easy to have ideas, and people think if you prompt people around customer problems you’ll find they suddenly come flowing thick and fast.

Tom

Yeah, definitely. Again, it goes back to the way that we’re working with some of our clients at the moment. Choosing a topic, something we want to solve … we’ve done this with some large charities recently, where we pick a customer problem or pick a segment, fundraising for example, said some people were involved in, said talk around the problem, run through some simple exercises. We were kind of surprised at time that you get really great stuff come out the back that could be turned into new products, could be turned into whole new marketing campaigns that work really well and fit very well with this idea that we’ve got a problem we’re trying to solve through brainstorming and thinking out loud.

Dan

It’s amazing how far you can get with pen and paper basically. You say to someone, “Oh, we’re going to come up with your innovation plan for the next six months, and we’re going to do it today, and we’re going to use nothing more than just asking you questions about your customers, repeating them back to you and then getting you to filter your ideas through that lens,” people come away energised. When you look at what they’re then going to go and attempt to do, it’s like, “Guys, that’s five year’s work you’ve just decided is worth doing.”
But that’s the volume of ideas that gets generated from that kind of thing. I suppose if you look at the other side of things, away from the larger organisation that wants to innovate lots of ideas, and a little bit more of the startup world, I think the key principles around ideas there are that people try and protect ideas way too much. They think ideas are some kind of silver bullet. That, again, is all out of the fact that we glorify the idea. You look at existing massive startups, and the question everyone says is, “How did they come up with that idea?” Imagining that AirBnB just appeared, looking like it does, or that Uber just suddenly popped up one day and said, “Well this is … this is obviously … this is how it would work.”
I think entrepreneurs see that and they think, “Right, so I have to be the person that does this and no one else must hear my idea.” That’s just not how the world works. One, you’ve got to make your idea work. You’ve got to kick the tyres on your idea and make sure that you test out whether or not this is going to be the thing you hang your hat on as an entrepreneur. Don’t keep it secret, don’t protect it. You want to be testing it within an inch of its life. A scientist will look to disprove a theory.

Tom

Absolutely.

Dan

You should treat your idea like that. The first thing you should be saying is, “Okay, now I’m going to try and make this not work. If it’s still showing signs of life, then maybe I’ll start believing that I’ve got something here.” The other side of that idea protection is that you need to take an idea through a validation stage before you start investing big money in design and development. How are you going to do that without telling anyone your idea?
The first thing we do is say, “Right, let’s do some user research.” What are we going to do in that? “Well, we’re going to tell everyone the idea.” You either better get your printer out and start producing multiple copies of that NDA because we’re going to be signing them as fast as you can print them with potential users, or just let go of that bit, go out there. A good idea, you’re the entrepreneur, your business is what will be valuable, not the idea.

Tom

The idea is only as good as the execution and the team behind it.

Dan

Yeah, and the learning that that team has amassed by being open about the idea.

Tom

Cool. That’s great. I think it’s a nice introduction to the way that we approach ideas and certainly help teams come up with ideas in the idea portion of the Product Leadership Framework. Thanks for listening. If you want to hear more content around Product Leadership, then head over to the Lighthouse’s site, wearelighthouse.com, to get more podcasts and blogs. If you want to find more about our Product Leadership Framework, then head over to wearelighthouse.com/plf. You can find us on Twitter, we’re @WeAreLighthouse. Please leave us a rating in iTunes if you enjoyed this show to help spread the word. Don’t forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We will see you next time. Bye.

Dan

Bye.