How I get from idea to delivered
Updated: Dec 23, 2020
“Ideas Are Easy, Implementation Is Hard” — <someone?!??!?!>
There is undoubtedly some context in here that really matters, & there are various views on the intricacies behind this famous quote... & even some debate as to its origin. I won't go into that here & will just move on as a believer!
(but just in case you are keen for a pretty reasonable wander through https://www.forbes.com/2004/11/04/cx_gk_1104artofthestart.html?sh=336ba9751efe )
I have found this sentiment to stand the test of reality. Idea’s are great - good idea’s are spectacular - but without implementation... well... quite literally nothing happens! There are many insights, articles, tips & perspectives on productive ideation already out there, a quick google search will return plenty, so I’ll focus here on the process I’ve honed over years of successfully failing forwards that mechanises how I’ve found the vital palpable balance of costs-risks needed to successfully move my ideas through into delivered product/services.
Starting from the top!
Balance cost with learning - The process is not a map of steps to simply follow, rather the value I get out of its guidance is a view on the expectations required at each stage & the set of effective questions / thinking perspectives that are naturally associated. Knowledge of this process gives me a sense of the costs that are reasonable to incur & actions reasonable to take. It guides me on my pursuit of a low-redundancy & side-track-free lean journey to the answers I need to deliver a successful product/service.
Fidelity - I’ve found that there is a very real phenomenon when presenting an idea to a prospective customer/user/boss; the first impressions the presentation gives, & the preconceptions it musters becomes the basis upon which the idea itself is understood & measured. If the presentation is refined, polished & uses examples from let’s say the retail sector than the typical response from across the table is to expect a refined, polished & retail sector centred fully incarnated idea / viable widget. This is kind of reasonable if you think about it... the level of fidelity of the presentation of my idea must match with where we are at in our journey to deliver the idea. For instance, at the early stages my idea most likely is rough, unpolished & should be presented with almost vague mentions of the sectors in which it may fit - a sketch. It is not until towards the tail of the process that my presentation of my idea should come across as refined, polished & targeted - a widget. I find this immensely useful in practice. Ensuring that I match the fidelity appropriate to the stage of the idea through the process lessens the distractions, misinterpretations, maligned focus & disjointed feedback that so easily can derail my emerging ideas at their early stages. Towards the later stages, matching the fidelity appropriate increases my ability to self regulate & ensure my idea is refined, polished, targeted & generally robust enough to survive inspection.
The Lab & the Commercialisation Lines - There are three very discrete mental modes that inhabit this process. For my own clarity I demarcate these with the Lab & Commercialisation Lines to signify the required focus. Pre-Lab Line denotes the stages that are typically located in the “Lab”. A safe, more forgiving, less polished, more experimental, more exploratory space. The mind set here is divergent - what might my loose idea blossom into? Crossing this line signifies that we are leaving the safe place & going out side; going somewhere where things must work, everything is harder & tougher, & the real world conspires to wreck things. This zone - the real world - is convergent, this is were I tend to focus in on the details of what exactly needs to be trimmed, refined, polished, perfected, sharpened to get ‘there’. And then we cross the commercialisation line... again my mental mode needs to radically change. The mind set here is deliver. I ask myself what needs to be further refined so that I can go from making 1 of theses things to 1,000? What features are must-have versus which as nice-to-have? What can I cut? And then of course DFX (Design for Assembly / Manufacture / Reliable / Cost / X)!
Ok - the steps blow-by-blow
Early Discover - Reading, thinking, searching, talking, dreaming, allowing space to evolve & develop all towards the questions of: What’s my idea? Is there any merit in there? Does it seem not-impossible? I tend to like this phrasing of the question as it inherently implies seeking a stretch goal.. it leads me to seek ideas that’s implementation aren’t immediately clear, but there are no immediately clear absolute show-stoppers. Shot for Mars, fail in the stars! Finally & perhaps most importantly, does it seem fun to do? It’s a long grind - a long grind - there will be times where fatigue & frustration says stop - fun gets me through those times!
Proof of Concept - The bare bones, tape, tissue & wishes pieced together incarnation of my idea. Its whole purpose is to survive long enough so that I can ask a 3rd party ‘Is this a sensible idea?'. The classic show don’t tell. It doesn’t need to be a solid incarnation, it doesn’t need to be pretty, it just needs to survive for those couple of hours it will take to put it in front of a typical user an&d ask that simple question - less focus on effort & more focus learning. I have actually found that lower fidelity Proof of Concepts actually move through contact with users a bit more smoothly. If it is clear that this is not the final form then user focus is easier to direct to the considering the usefulness - whereas if the if the fidelity is higher the conversation inevitably moves to less useful input for this stage. Such as “it would be better is the edges were rounded or it was a different colour”. Good to know, but a little less fundamental than insights on should I even bother along this path.
<Lab Line - aka “The Valley of Death”> This is perhaps the scariest point for me.. the point at which my idea needs to cross from the relative safety & comfort of the lab out into the dark cold world. I find it very powerful to have the clear symbolic threshold to watch my idea surpass & to prompt my internal search for the fortitude to weather the forthcoming turbulence that is undoubtedly coming my way. This is where good ideas come to die. Ok, I am being dramatic, but I can’t emphasise how much benefit I get from the mental mode shift this clear demarcation sets in my idea’s journey to delivery.
Prototype - A largely functional widget that probably needs a developer to hold it while asking a end-user “You can see what I am doing here, how could I make it better? What should I do more of? What should I do less of?". These are intentionally leading questions. I don’t tend to go with “Does it work?” as that kind of binary question leads too easily to a premature death of an idea (spoiler: 99% of the time you think it does but they see the 1% think it doesn’t). Again, keeping the fidelity is as low as possible helps me here... the key word being ‘possible’. There needs to be sufficient fidelity for the prototype to hold together for a larger period of time, to come across as more complete, & to be non-offensive to users (they don’t need to love it... but hating it may be an insurmountable hiccup). On the flip side, I find keeping the fidelity intentionally low as possible seems to result in more forgiveness from users. Their feedback tends to be more along the lines of what would make it ‘better’, rather than ‘all the ways it doesn’t work’.
Operational Evaluation - A largely functional widget the end-user can actually independently use, with their hands on the steering wheel, & under ‘light’ supervision at most designed to ask the question of “Is this useful?". Yes, I know, that was almost like reading the last point again. Herein lies the benefit I find by clearly signalling this stage. My idea & its incarnation doesn’t change significantly from the prototype stage to this one ~but~ what does change is who uses it! In this stage a 3rd party, a real person, an end-user, a potential customer does. The core question of this stage must respect & reflect this. I find it immensely beneficial to remind myself that a Prototype is for me to see if it works - Operational Evaluation is for me to see if it can & will be used.
<Commercialisation Line> Again, I find this to be an immensely beneficial demarcation on my idea’s journey to delivery. Perhaps for slightly different reasons than the last though. Prior to this my exploration is more around “will it work?”, “should it be a thing?”, “does anyone even want it?” & “is it useful?” but from this point those uncertainties should have been resolved & now it is all about execution. I know what to make, I just need some proper engineers to step in & do it! Believe it or not I see great amounts of relief in this. I see technical, product & business risks in the unknowns above... knowing what to aim for & being confident there is gold at the end of that rainbow is bold, but earned, & definitely settling. Now that I have reached here the bulk of what remains is the considerably more tractable execution risk. I should have already produced proof of concept for all of the hardest / most impossible bits of the solution - I have proved it possible to do & that it should be done. Now it is the grind to get it integrated, refined, polished & packaged. There is still a LOT of work to do, but this work is more of the grind type than the gamble type.
Productisation (aka MVP) - “What needs to change so that I can go from making 1-2 to making 10+ of these things... but get an even better result?". Often I find I must visit & revisit, refine & refine, trim & cull, tweak & customise, polish & shine in seemingly endless circles. This really is a stage to find every little gap, every little assumption, every scuff, every knob that should have been a slider, every placeholder & every superfluous aspect & relentlessly sharpen, harden, measure & repeat until utter convergence.
Commercialisation (aka business) - “How can I make it better, faster, stronger, cheaper, easier to produce, etc while making more money out of it?". Home sweet home! I am very glad to say I am an Engineer. I find an almost zen state in the perpetual incremental nature of seek & refine DFX. I ask myself “can I find just one thing to make even a tiny bit better?”, then polish, then repeat... then repeat... then repeat ad nausea. Fortuitously, this is where the business-as-usual amongst us naturally accumulate, once I have proven my idea belongs in this stage it is typically a forgone conclusion that it is deliverable & a mountain of interested parties appear, all keen to step in & contribute.
<the ubiquitous 'honest question'> I perpetually get hit with the “surely there is a easier pathway / I can skip some steps in my special case?”. I would love to say ‘yes’. In fact I can quite easily say it, ‘yes’. Unfortunately I don’t believe it & in my experience reality (that cruel mistress) is even less forgiving. I have found these to be the keys aspects that need to be proven out, I have found doing so builds an unstoppable momentum to delivering my ideas, I have found skipping or even skimping on any of these creates holes for my ideas to fall in & perish.
<the insight> The shortest path to get an idea from inception to delivered is to build trust in the concept, value it yields, its ease of use, the ability to produce it & a clear pathway to produce more for less - I wish it was negotiable, it doesn’t seem to be in reality though, I no longer fear the journey, I have a proven map!