The most interesting ideas are always our own, and we have them all the time. It’s unlikely that there’s a single iPhone owner who hasn’t come up with at least half a dozen ideas for apps that they’re certain would make them a mint. Creative types will come up with more; entrepreneurial types will do something about them.
But how can a successful creative entrepreneur sort through all of the ideas that pass through his head every week, ensuring that he only invests time, effort and money in those most likely to succeed? How can he filter out the bad ideas?
Addressing the Web 2.0 Expo in New York a couple of years ago, Clay Shirky, a new-media professor, writer, and consultant, pointed out that information overload, the abundance of ideas and data available on the Web, was nothing new. When Gutenburg created the printing press, he noted, he put the literate public in a unique position. For the first time, readers had more books than they were able to consume in a lifetime. If they weren’t going to waste their candle light, they would need a way to filter out the bad ideas coming off the presses from the ones that were worth reading and thinking about. Fortunately, the solution came built in to the economics of the new publishing industry. Presses cost money and so did the printing process. Publishers could only make their investment back if enough people bought their books. Owners of printing presses then became not just mechanical engineers and book marketers but filters sorting out interesting ideas from those that would be ignored, a role they still hold today.
Clay Shirky went on to explain how those filters have now broken down. When anyone can publish online, there are no risks to publishing an article and readers have to apply their own garbage filters as they surf the Web for interesting ideas. As anyone who has ever searched for specific information on Google has discovered, it’s not easy sorting the good stuff from the dross.
Filters for Companies
But that lack of an online filter is only a problem when you’re sorting through the ideas of others, and the cost in wasted time when you click to a site filled with more AdSense units than useful content is small. A bigger worry is for corporations. Writing on Cloud Ave, Hutch Carpenter, VP of product at Spigit.com, has proposed an ideas filter for the business world. A company may have thousands of workers, many of whom will be buzzing with bright ideas, he explains, and some of those ideas could be useful to the company. Usually, the difficulties involved in pulling those ideas out and assessing them means that they tend to be ignored. Employees implement the ideas that are passed down from senior management while their own insights are overlooked.
That was a waste of thought that Google tried to capture through Innovation Time Off. Giving employees one day a week to work on their own ideas is said to have produced Google News, Gmail, Orkut and even the cash cow AdSense. But it also presumably produced plenty of half-built prototypes and failed concepts.
Hutch Carpenter’s suggestion might produce a more efficient corporate ideas filter. He proposes that the employees don’t just function as the source of ideas, they also assess them, voting for proposals they like. The ideas are shared by email and tagged by keyword, categories and individual (ideas from experts may be more powerful than those with only a vague knowledge of the subject.) In addition, experts will look through the ideas that company is generating, hoping to spot half-formed concepts that have been missed.
It’s a mixture of crowdsourced filtering and expert oversight that retains the problems of both. In any reasonably large company, the experts are going to be overloaded with potentially good ideas and crowds aren’t always as wise as they’re made out. That’s especially true when the only cost to approving an idea is paid by shareholders, and not by the employee himself.
The Entrepreneur’s Overlapping Ideas Filters
That’s not the case though for small entrepreneurs. They will have to pay when they pick a bad idea to work on and the losses in terms of time and finance can be painful. Getting Things Done, David Allen’s productivity system, will be of limited help here. His system organizes lists; it doesn’t help to determine the value of different items on different lists. In practice, entrepreneurs apply a series of overlapping filters that take into account a number of factors.
Ease of execution will be one of them. Ideas that are difficult to implement, that require a great deal of research or complex equipment are more likely to run into catastrophic problems. Riskier ideas need higher rewards to keep flowing
Cost will certainly be another. Few ideas worth enacting can be developed without a budget. While that sort of practical constraint might not be a good reason to stop a valuable idea from taking off, it’s probably the most common reason ideas aren’t implemented — together with time, a factor that includes both development time and the amount of free time available to work on the plan.
But the most important filter of all is passion. Without a genuine desire to see the idea implemented, a desire that goes beyond the dream of selling up and retiring to Hawaii, development tends to fail.
Those filters aren’t methodical. They can’t be gradated, and no points system is going to accurately measure the difficulty of turning an idea for an iPhone app or a new kind of social media site into a working model. When Biz Stone, Jack Dorsey and Evan Williams began working on Twitter, they didn’t stop to count up the scores for each of those qualities. They did it because it was more interesting than the work they were supposed to be doing and because they had limited the amount of time they were willing to spend on it. They had a passion for it and the costs and time seemed negligible.
When your ideas pass through those filters, they’re worth working on. The ones that get left behind probably deserve to stay there, at least until the size of the holes in the filters change — or the economics of the development process.