Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Ideation - Where Business Ideas Come From

by Henry Lopez

Ideation is the creative process of generating, developing, and communicating new business ideas. When we plan to launch a new business, we either leverage an existing concept or we develop our own unique idea. The same applies to growing an existing business. I have always struggled with determining which is harder – finding the idea or executing on it.

Sometimes ideas are easy enough to conjure, and the hard part is deciding if it’s good enough as the basis for developing a profitable business. If you have what you believe is a “great idea”, the next challenge is to prove or test that it will translate into a successful venture.

Then there are times when a viable idea is the hardest thing to find. It may seem like all the good ideas are taken, and you are left on the sidelines with the resources and desire to start or grow a business but without a great idea. The ideation process can take a day or it can take years, and as with the creative process, it’s usually unproductive to rush it. Aside from the other typical barriers of resources (money and people), the lack of a “good idea” is often what keeps people from taking action on their dream of becoming their own boss.

Creating a new business starts with the idea. The process of developing that idea, and your business concept, may perhaps include some level of testing through prototyping and iteration. During these early phases your idea will undoubtedly evolve and may even morph into something entirely different. There are three basic categories for business ideas, and considering these categories can help with sparking that next great brainchild or validating your existing one:
  • New – a new invention or business idea. Examples may include the Segway, Virtual Reality and other product inventions. This is the most difficult category for new business ideas. There are very few truly and completely new ideas. By “new” I mean something that absolutely does not currently nor in the past exist in any way. It’s easy to confuse a new idea with what is really an improvement or disruption of an existing or traditional way of doing something. Truly new and unique ideas are hard to come by, so don’t get paralyzed by thinking this is the only source of viable new ideas. 
  • Improvement – this is the proverbial better mouse trap. Examples include exterior-express car washes (where you stay in the car), Virgin Airlines, LED lighting, and Disney Land. Most small businesses probably fall into this category. You take an existing service or product and you make or deliver it in a better way, either directly or indirectly. You may make it of better quality raw materials, for example, or you may add value to the product or service by including additional services or add-ons. 
  • Disruption – a new and revolutionary way of doing something. Examples include Uber, AirBnB, and Amazon. Our modern interconnected world – supported and made possible by the internet –  now allows us to completely reinvent, transform and disrupt entire industries. The internet and other technologies are not the only way to execute on a disruptive business idea, but it has certainly accelerated our ability to do so. 

Where do great ideas come from? Sources of ideas can include reading, podcasts, art, architecture, personal experiences, travel, conversations, hobbies, borrowing from others, crowd creativity, crowd sourcing, and attempting to solve existing problems in our world. For existing businesses, the best source of ideas is usually your customers. Yet it takes a bit more than just experiencing or reading something to spark your next great idea.

In the article “How to Generate Good Ideas” by Belle Cooper, Steve Jobs is quoted as sharing that creative people are able to “connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.” In his observation, creative people consistently have “had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.”

Consciously and objectively experiencing new things will definitely influence and feed your creative abilities, and it’s one of the most productive ways we can continue to develop our ability to generate great ideas.  

Does this mean that you have to be creative to generate good business ideas? I believe creativity is certainly one of the main ingredients required for ideation, along with ingenuity and vision. The challenge for many people, however, is that they either have little confidence in their inherent creative abilities or don’t have the courage to express and tap into it. The idea generation process is much like the creative process in that we are putting forth something personal to be judged by others. You must have the courage and confidence to submit ideas that others might think are frivolous or ridiculous. It’s appropriate to remember what George Bernard Shaw wrote: “all great truths begin as blasphemies.”

The ideal process is to identify one or more business ideas, test them, and then continue with developing the idea that has the best possibility for success. Of course, always remember that the true test of an idea’s business viability ultimately rests entirely with the customer. Also remember that if your concept was easy, it would probably have already been done by someone else. 

Some questions to ask yourself to help qualify your business idea:
  • What need does my product or service fill? What problem does it solve?
  • What are the features and benefits of my offering?
  • What is my competitive advantage? What makes this idea truly unique in my market?
  • How do my skills and experience fit with my idea?
  • How will I be able to test and demonstrate it?
  • What resources will I need to build this idea into a viable business?
  • Does my idea solve a billion-person problem, or the problem of just a few?
  • Can I envision myself executing on this concept for the next 5 to 10 years?

Want to learn more about the ideation process?
We invite you to listen to Episode 4 (Ideation) of The How of Business podcast on this topic:

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