12 Ways Innovations Get Sidelined Before They Even Have a Chance

I didn't throw up. 

Dwilly launched three weeks ago and the number of things I worried about was ridiculous. I was afraid it'd be too much.

I wasn't ready. I hardly slept. I found mistakes in the code at midnight. I almost sent everything out at 4am.

But I didn't throw up. And it ended up being a really great day.

When the time came, I simply made myself a cup of coffee, hit send, and watched people all over the world come up with ideas about how to redesign an experience millions of people have everyday. 

Right now, I'm learning something new constantly. But in the months leading up to launching this great little idea generation community, I learned a tremendous amount as well.

So before I get too caught up in all of the new lessons, I want to share some of the most critical things I learned about innovation once I decided to generate one million ideas.

Rethinking the Role of Ideas

The lessons below are the result of speaking with incredible entrepreneurs, investors, social innovators, technologists, philanthropists, and designers.

They offered me unprecedented access into their experiences and insights, and gave me a perspective that money can't buy. All to help me not make the same mistakes as others.

Among other things they taught me why some corporate innovation divisions thrive while others falter horribly, as well as why the results of public ideation for governments are almost always underwhelming.

Perhaps the most important realization is that when you're working with ideas, you have to accept two seemingly contradictory realities at the same time:

1.  We need many more good ideas

2.  Good ideas aren’t as useful as we think they are

As Julie Zhuo, product director at Facebook puts it:

“At dinner parties, we all love sitting next to the “Idea Person”. And yet, the people who are most likely to be called “Idea People” from the outside know exactly how little an idea in and of itself is worth.”

Real innovation - products or services that make a significant demonstrable impact - is an ongoing interaction between ideas and implementation. You need creative and promising solutions all the way through execution, and will require many more than you expect as you iterate forward. 

Where Do People Go Wrong?

So what's keeping us from generating the kinds of solutions that persistent problems require of us? 

Why haven't we figured out how to generate and implement the ideas that'll make the impacts we desire?

It's complicated, but here are 12 of the biggest hurdles organizations succumb to when trying to generate breakthrough innovations

1.  People in small organizations are typically hesitant to propose new ideas internally

A friend of mine's company built software to help small entities better manage the collection and implementation of innovation opportunities. What happened? In short, hardly anything. The employees were all too cautious to propose the things they believed would truly benefit them.

2.  Big organizations often face a deluge of ideas and struggle to process them in a timely and efficient manner

When Fortune 500 companies develop innovation pipelines (outside of typical R&D), they know they need to get ideas from everywhere: employees, customers, vendors, etc. What happens in organizations at this scale is that they receive more ideas than can be easily managed. And each idea has a person attached to it that think it's a genius solution, expects a response, and is hoping it's good news. Just collecting and responding can be time-consuming, let alone meaningfully analyzing the data for investable opportunities.

3.  There’s no algorithm for surfacing the best ideas

This is part of the reason why this area is so fascinating. Algorithms can help clean up and structure ideas, but they're limited in their ability to say 

You never would’ve thought of this and you need to see this.

4.  Voting isn’t always a promising method for discovering disruptive ideas

Crowds often vote for what they already know and feel good about, or anything with momentum. Rooting for an uncertain option doesn't fit with our psyche. That's not always the case, but it's definitely something to be conscious of.

5.  Individuals and groups don’t usually generate enough ideas to come up with brand new ones

A mentor of mine told me he's seen research that a group needs to generate 17 ideas before they begin generating truly new ideas. Most of the time groups don't come up with anywhere near 17 ideas, let alone 40 or 50.  When people are expected to only come up with 1-3 every now and then, it's silly to think they'll generate the kinds of concepts your organization needs. People need to be in the habit of pushing their thinking further in order to do it well when the time is critical.

6.  People are unknowingly influenced by concepts seeded by their peers

This is a classic problem of groups. It spans everything from courtroom jurors to design workshops. (It's also the basis for a lot of magic tricks). In recent years, there's been more of a realization that groups can sometimes produce more stagnant thinking than the same individuals generating new ideas on their own then coming together. It's hard to find the best opportunities when people are stacking the deck or barking the loudest.

7.  Markets and organizations tend to suffer from myopic thinking.

This is hard for us to admit. We all think we're pretty hot stuff....just sitting on big ideas! The reality is our regions, markets, and organizations define our thinking more than we'd like to admit, and that stifles our ability to see what else we need to be doing.

8.  People are rarely prompted to generate ideas outside of their areas of expertise

This is a huge barrier to innovation because many times technology simply needs transferred into a new domain in order to be impactful. For instance, basic robots might not be particularly cutting edge, but when they're used in modern baby products like rockers and strollers, they can upend an entire market (like 4moms did). It's the ability to look elsewhere that helps us makes sense of what's in front of us.

9.  Consultants don’t get paid to come up with new ideas — just to tell you what other people do        

Another benchmarking study is not what you need. Period.

10.  Some people are burdened by too many ideas, while others hold tight to one or two for too long

What's important about this issue is that the needs of the two types of people are really different. The first group is looking for help focusing, while the other group needs help testing their idea against reality. Both are barriers to innovation, but so is treating them the same.

11.  It’s too time-consuming and difficult to access a network of innovators willing to ideate on your issues

Most of the time, we call a couple of smart people in our network or pull together a moderately productive meeting and go from there. This, of course, leaves the whole process susceptible to a number of the barriers laid out here. But the reality is that connecting with, say, a robotocist from Europe and an entrepreneur in New York is a time-consuming and challenging task for a lot of people. A global network dedicated to solving problems isn't easy to develop, so we usually settle for the folks we have immediate access to, and the results reflect that.

12.  Organizations that ask employees for ideas but don’t/can’t implement most of them risk suffering resulting drops in morale

The simple truth is that the vast majority of ideas you generate internally won't be implemented. But your employees have high hopes for their proposals, which means shooting down idea after idea has a significant impact not only on morale but on people's future willingness to submit new ideas.

So What Does Effective Ideation Look Like?

It's clear ideas are a complex brew. In a lot of ways idea generation is a wicked problem.

But if we're to truly get smarter about how we generate and implement new products and services, we're going to need to recognize how limited our ideas, approaches, and perspectives really are. It's time to quit kidding ourselves about how well we're seeding and developing the types of thinking required to create meaningful differences in people's lives.

What will it take to usher in a system for curating ideas from smart, creative people that doesn't fall prey to these 12 issues?

I don't have all the answers.

But I'm thankful to have 500+ people working on this with me. 

 
 

What I Learned from Sending 300+ Emails Manually

I could have automated everything instead of staying up late reaching out to every new user. 

But I went with the old-school option. 

Here's why...

 

 

Growth is just.....so......damn......tempting. 

But it's almost impossible to realize that you're not as far along in your understanding of the people, problem, and product as you think you are.

So we usually end up aiming for growth before we really know what it is we’re even actually doing. 

Here's how I started down the flawed path of trying to grow too soon, realized it was a huge mistake, and  then managed to change course in time to gain a ton of actionable insights from new users and make valuable new relationships...

 

 

Before I did anything public, I signed up a nice list of early users, curating exactly who came onboard.

But for the actual kickoff, I wanted more users. So a few weeks ago I posted Dwilly on Betalist, a site for startups looking for beta users. 

We ended up getting more than 1,000 pageviews in a few days as a result. 

The folks were from all over the world:

And after a day or so, Dwilly got picked up by the Product Hunt of China (not its real name): 

Knowing there’d be some level of traffic surge from the two sites, part of me really wanted to build in a viral sharing component to capitalize on the moment.

In fact, a well-known investor and entrepreneur I got connected to recommended this as well

Dwilly

The easiest thing I could’ve done would be to set up a simple email automation referral program. As soon as someone signed up, I could send them a welcome email. It could still sound personal, and could include a call-to-action like click-to-tweet, or share on Facebook, or forward for a free ebook, or something. 

Trying to straddle the personal and sharing, I started by sending the first 50 or so people who signed up the following email:

It was manual, and it was also sort of indecisive, like an ask without a super simple next step. Half-committed is never the right approach.

I was copying and pasting the content and customizing it where I could, since I'd only collected email addresses in order to boost conversions.

This process was time-consuming but fun and helpful. I got to check out people’s design portfolios, startups, blogs, etc. 

I’m not sure how to explain it, but after around 50 emails, something clicked. 

This realization would never have happened if I had everything automated.

I realized it didn’t make sense to get referrals or to aim for compounded growth. At this point, I needed to not think about growth. I needed to figure out why people were coming onboard.

If I didn’t know why they were joining, I’d most likely lose them in no time anyways.

When you’re building a community, the most important thing you can have is a feel for the people. 

I knew the makeup of the 75 or so people I signed up on my own. They’re the ones I used in writing the copy for the landing page:

 - Icons from  http://icons8.com

- Icons from http://icons8.com

But I was signing up around 100 new people each day. Apart from the fact that they likely had an interest in new startups and had clicked through a couple of content filters (Betalist blurb, landing page, signup), I didn't know exactly who they were or why they signed up. 

So I took a nod from Alex Turnbull’s commitment to his users at Groove.

With each new signup, there were two things I specifically wanted to gauge:

1. Interest in being part of a community of great people; and 

2. Interest in the individual practice of idea generation.

These two components didn’t come from nowhere. 

When I ran the alpha test for Dwilly with a small group of friends and family, I included a little experiment. On the first day, I sent a recap email to everyone that highlighted some of the most promising creative ideas from the day, gave an overview of common themes, and a couple unique findings. 

On the other days, I didn’t share anything with anyone and people missed it. 

The more I thought about what this meant — and talked to potential users in real-life — the more I realized the community interaction needed to be a critical component. 

So I updated the site’s heading from:

To the current one:

While the new copy was helpful for drawing in more people, the site still had some intentional vagueness on it, so it was critical to find out which parts actually stood out.

So I started asking something different. 

While I did get a small number of direct referrals from the first email, it also produced almost zero direct responses. This email led to tons of responses. And they mainly fell into two buckets:

  1. “Compulsive innovators” (to use one user’s term) who generate tons of ideas 
  2. People looking to connect with other people doing cool stuff

There’s definitely overlap between the two groups, which seems only natural when you have people who want to generate new ideas in pursuit of new products/services.

They also matched up pretty closely with the two main concepts I was curious about: idea generation and community.

Plus there were a small number of people who offered helpful unsolicited advice and feedback:

Calling out the vagueness:

Identifying a conversion killer:

  (for the record, we definitely don't own 'em . The ideas are public domain  ☺ )

(for the record, we definitely don't own 'em . The ideas are public domain  ☺ )

Pointing out valuable copy:

Community and personal benefit:

Intriguing concept:

The practical payoff of these types of comments is incredible. 

I’d argue they’ll lead to more conversions over the long-term than if I opted instead to have them refer one or two people to a service they hadn’t even used yet. 

This feedback loop makes Dwilly better.

Something I actually hadn't anticipated was the number of references to some of the related services out there, and the enthusiasm people felt for something better/different. 

I’m keenly aware of the problems related to how people use ideas to innovate

But what I liked most was the reminder that this is a really interesting and challenging space. It’s a nice place to call home, especially with all of these incredible people. 

I definitely could have sent 300 automated emails instead of staying up late everyday reaching out to every new user. 

But as I see it, freeing up those few days would’ve meant running in the dark for months. 

Manually sending hundreds of emails, and customizing where appropriate, is anything but practical. The value is something simultaneously tangible and intangible.

I can feel the group’s pulse. 

And for that, I’d send every email again.




 

Our Startup Quest to Generate 1 Million Ideas in One Year

It was the biggest goal of my life. But I also wanted to start small. Here's how I reconciled it...

 

 

"Holy shit."

I'd been ticking through a hundred things that needed done to get ready to launch. 

It seemed like there was too much to do and everything was taking too long. There were too many variables and too many unknowns to count. 

But then again maybe not. Or maybe they didn't matter as much as I figured.

Without a doubt, starting is daunting.  

That's basically what it means: choosing to be daunted

But if you're launching something and you haven't felt completely overwhelmed and told yourself the whole thing is crazy, you're not aiming high enough. 

To get where you want to be, you have to start. That's it. 

I'm helping generate a million ideas, so every day I don't start hurts.

 

To help others starting and growing companies,  launching side projects, or working to design new methods of innovation, I'll be writing about just about every detail of this quest to a million ideas—the product details, growth tactics, stresses, big wins, wrong turns, failures, successes.

I figure let's open the whole thing up :)

This scares the hell out of me. 

 

But here goes...

 

 

Where are we starting?

We’re launching tomorrow with a little over 400 users. 

These people are incredible.

They’re artists from Paris, tech folks from San Francisco, designers in Seattle, entrepreneurs from India, and all sorts of other brilliant people doing interesting things.

They’re probably a lot like you.

They’re people I admire — people whose brains and bodies of work are a sight to see. I can only imagine what they’ll come up with when they push their thinking to new places.

We’re launching tomorrow with a tool that’s simple and basic—it does the trick.

 

Our users get a simple prompt and an embedded form in their inbox. They do their best to come up with a recommended number of ideas on that day's topic - like "New Uses for Abandoned City Lots" - and submit them from right inside the email. 

Each person immediately receives their list of ideas to share with friends, send off to people they want to impress, or simply collect for future development. 

At night, we send a roundup of the ideas that struck us the most and tease at the next day's prompt to give our brains a head start.  This also allows for connections to begin to develop, say, between a social entrepreneur and an iOS developer. Or a product designer and an investor.

Soon we'll move into a more full-fledged community structure, but right now we're going with this.

It's a long way from what's possible and I'm ok with that. 

I say that now, but I’ll probably throw up tomorrow.  

 

 

Watch out for everything

Early stage entrepreneurs wage a constant battle between having and trying to have things figured out.

To give you a sense of what I mean, here’s a peak at just a small collection of things I’m thinking about on the eve of our initial launch and will be paying close attention to in the coming days:

What's resonating? What isn't?

How are different growth techniques working?

What’s the best allocation of my time?

Who can I bring onboard?

How many average daily users in relation to overall users?

What are the next steps after the things-that-don’t-scale stage?

How quickly can I turn learnings into action?

Are people using it for reasons I didn't expect?

Some of these topics are user-related, others are personal. Some are future-facing, and others are immediate. Trust me, there are many more.

There's a natural inflection point at this stage for founders: 

The majority of your questions can only be answered by observing actual usage. 

And so tomorrow we launch.

 

 

Why 1 million ideas?

Admittedly, it seems ideas aren't usually the problem. 

Most of us are swimming in ideas. 

It’s the whole making it a reality part that kills us. Execution where we so often come up short. 

As Julie Zhuo, product design director for Facebook, puts it:

Ideas are like candy—colorful, fun, easy to indulge in.
The hard part—the part that really matters—is the follow-through.

The truth we all live with is that anybody can propose Uber for X or a platform for Y, but that not everyone can pull it off. 

So why not build something that helps people execute?

Because I think our whole approach to ideas is about to change.

For all of our talk of continuous learning and deployment, we still cling tight to the flawed belief that innovation is the result of a single, brilliant idea.

But that's not the way it works.

Innovation isn't one idea at the beginning, followed by nothing but hard work afterwards.  

IDEAMYTH

Execution is the result of a series of ideas for every step of the way. We need to generate creative and promising ideas all the way down the line.

An idea, a test, a new idea. Repeat. 

Over and over and over. 

You're not done after your one good idea.

 

Solving a social issue, designing a new product, and growing a company all require trying out way more ideas than you imagined. It's sure as hell more than one. You need to be able to look at a problem and generate numerous ideas from multiple perspectives with speed and regularity.

So if you’re carting around one tired idea for months, thinking it's a guaranteed winner, you’re doomed. Organizations of people doing this are doomed. Industries of people doing this are doomed.

The problem isn't that people don't execute.

 

It's that we start to believe execution doesn't require ideation, that there are only idea people and execution people. The truth is we are all both. And getting better in one realm enables us to be better in the other. 

 

 

One Million, Then What?

Today we start with 0 ideas.

Tomorrow it’ll be more. And the day after that even more. 

I’ll walk you through how we go from 0 to 100.

Then 100 to 1,000.

Then 1,000 to 10,000. And so on. 

Nobody starts at a million. But you get there from here.

Or at least you can watch us try. 

 
 
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