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Ideas are Worthless without Context

“Wow, that’s a great idea. Did you think of that?”

The setting was a massive trade show where we rolled out our new business concept to hundreds of people an hour. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive and based on the look on people’s faces when we explained the idea it is indeed a great idea. While this affirmation should have felt good, all I could feel was a small dagger of stress as the compliment was repeated because I know that great ideas are worthless.


My work is typically cyclical and every new project begins with an idea. Good ideas are a critical component for a successful project and yet often they are very hard to come by. Rare as they may be, the scarcity of good ideas does not make them valuable.

Getting a good idea seems to always start with bad ideas and lots of them. All too often it is the bad ideas that ultimately lead to the good ideas. Sometimes what initially looks like a bad idea has this way of looking like a good idea when the angle of the light subtly shifts. And while some ideas start out better than others, no ideas are ever born perfect.

Ideas, like diamonds, are born with lots of potential but at birth are unassuming and flawed. Just as a diamond is cut and polished as part of its transformation, ideas take a similar path. An idea is only valuable if it fits within the context of the business. For example if I have a great idea for a new theme park, and I work at a firm that sells food, then that's going to do me little good (although both Anheuser-Busch and Hershey’s might disagree). Ideas, like diamonds, have to be cut to fit within their setting or business context. An idea that fits snuggly into a company's business plan, on the other hand, can be extremely valuable.

Unlike diamonds, when it comes to ownership of an idea possession is rarely nine-tenths of the law. Once an idea is shared with the world, it can be copied and even perfected by someone else by some other business whose context is better suited to the same idea. Thus ideas are not physical possessions…they are living breathing evolving concepts that freely travel through time and space and thus an idea is worthless.

Making an idea fit often requires changing the idea, but changing an idea to fit the business context doesn't necessarily result in a better business plan. Sometimes idea managers are presented with hard choices: Stick with a wildly creative version of the idea or evolve that same idea into something with less sparkle but that's a better fit.

With jewelry it's pretty easy to evaluate the fit, but it's very difficult to tell if an idea fits a business plan with the naked eye. Ideas must be carefully tested, permutated, vetted and evolved. That's the only way to tell if they will ultimately fit. Market research is one way to determine what customers think of an idea, but of even more importance might be the impact of the idea on the business' status quo. Or how you’re your competitors will react to the idea?

Idea vetting also includes the politics within the company. For an idea to lead to drive toward a new success needs broad support within the organization. Any one idea, however, may lead one department to see more risk than reward even if the reward potential looks strong for the company overall.

An idea is a good idea when it fits neatly into a business plan that gets both support and funding. A business plan is perfect when it addresses all objections and seems so simple as to be obvious. A “why didn’t I think of that” idea is about as good as it gets in the idea game. And yet a good idea and a perfect business plan are still a long way from success.

Success is a much tougher animal to wrangle even with a perfect business plan in your back pocket. While a business plan describes the strategy, tactics, budget and timeline, it’s only a piece of paper. Success is a function of the quality of the implementation of that plan and there is no such thing as a perfect implementation.


The idea came to me nine months ago. It was born dripping wet in the shower the result of replaying in my head an interaction with a summer intern from the previous day. At birth it was really only half an idea, but even on first inspection it looked better than most that emerge from my shower. I played with my new friend letting it rattle around in my head. As it rolled around I was able to inspect it from different angles. Pretty soon it had become permanently merged with another half idea and the idea mitosis had begun. The miracle of life was well underway and yet not everyone could appreciate the young embryo in its initial form. The process of telling and retelling the idea helped give the idea shape and more depth with every retelling.

The idea was born at a perfect time. It was born in the middle of the annual planning cycle at a time when wild and wacky ideas are encouraged. Few if any of the wild ones ever see the light of day, but this little guy had a bit of “je ne sais quoi” that allowed it to live a little longer than many of its other wacky cousins had in years past.

While the idea had a bit of glitter to it, no one was overly confident it was a good idea for this company. Business plans at this company tend to be slow evolutions as opposed to the impetuous jump this idea would require. Surprisingly the idea didn’t die on its first formal day of consideration, but the team asked for more research.

The research results were stunning. For the right narrow little customer niche we target, this wasn’t just a cute little idea it was a big idea with potentially seismic consequences. The research results, in fact, were so strong that no one on the management team was willing to get in the way of this future star. The idea was a gem that needed to find the right setting. The process of building a business plan around our little new friend had begun.

On the anniversary of its third month the idea had that business plan, it had a budget and a number of key strategies identified. The process of building a business plan meant significant evolution of the idea with lots of people helping to improve the original concept. With parts original, parts borrowed and parts blue, the plan was near perfect. It was clear and easy to communicate. This idea had grown into something that only this company could support. It was now not just a good idea but it was a defensible idea—at least I hope. That isn't to say it was a sure thing. Implementation of the plan was still a question mark.

To be fair, the implementation went a lot better than it could have gone, but there was a never-ending parade of trade offs to be made. For example, this particular idea required a new website but the business also needed a limited risk profile. On paper both goals seemed accomplishable, but when the initial estimate to build the website came in at $120,000 I was worried. My budget was just $20,000. And yet this was an idea that begged to be born, but could we hold it under a $20,000 house?

Implementation is so much easier within the context of a large company. Big companies can waste time, waste money and fix their miscalculations with money. Small companies rarely have that flexibility and thus implementing a big idea inside a small company is always more difficult. Despite the odds…despite the small budget…despite the challenges along the way, this idea was born on May 18, 2012. The idea and its business plan were launched on time and on budget.


The initial interest in our idea was stunning. The feedback and participation levels were both well beyond our wildest “best-case” forecasts. No one seemed to question the context of the idea…to most it made perfect sense that a company like ours would have an idea like this. Within the close quarters of a trade show environment we were also well aware that our competitors were getting their first glimpse at how the world had changed over night.

By any measure, I think it’s fair to say that our initial launch phase has been a success and yet with every accomplishment comes a new challenge and a steeper hill to climb. As a small company (1/50th the size of our largest competitors) can we build enough momentum so that this new idea will change the industry? Will the idea be copied and bettered? Will customers respond to grown up idea as they did to the baby ideas we tested? Can we deliver on the promise?

All are questions for another day. In the meantime while I probably should be celebrating our initial success, but I’m nervous about everything that can still go wrong. I am taking the time to reflect on the past nine month (what you’ve been reading) and I'm looking to the future. I like what I see in the future. I just hope I can get there. Onward.


May 21, 2012

© Greg Harris, 2012

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