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What Are Your Disruptive Ideas? (Getting Past Stumbling Block 3)

Talking about ideas—as opposed to documenting them—keeps them general and abstract. And an abstract idea is harder to understand and remember—both for you and anyone else you might want to share it with. Showing ideas, on the other hand, makes them specific and concrete, which in turn, makes them easy to share, understand, and remember.

So, after you refine your three ideas by blending the bits and the benefits, you need to create a one-page or slide overview of each idea, accurately describing it in words and pictures. If you decide you want to further develop an idea into a solution for the market, having documented your ideas in this way will make it easier to get critical feedback from consumers. Use the following list as a guide for putting together your one-pager.

  • Name: Giving your idea a name is the first step toward making it concrete and easily graspable by others. Pick a name that accurately represents the idea and makes it stand out. It should be short, memorable, and credible. Finally, make it easy to pronounce and easy on the ears when it’s spoken. Look to the marketplace and examples of your favorite brands for inspiration: BlackBerry, PayPal, Under Armor, FedEx. All strong names.

    To make the name of your idea stand out, remember that people have a better chance of remembering something unique than something common; that’s just the way our memory works. So, once you have a name that you think accurately represents the idea, give it a twist—deliberately misspell it, mess with the grammar, collapse two words together, or add additional letters. Quentin Tarantino did this with his 2009 movie Inglorious Basterds.

    If you need a little guidance on naming, there’s plenty to learn from the movie industry. Consultant and former MGM Executive Stephanie Palmer once asked a client, “Can you imagine seeing a movie called 3,000 Dollars? Can you identify the genre?”13 According to Stephanie, that was the original title of Pretty Woman, and the $3,000 was the fee Julia Roberts’ character charged for her services.

    Although you can’t overestimate the power of a great name, don’t spend an inordinate amount of time on it. We’re not talking about a public-facing brand, so 10–15 minutes should be plenty of time. Right now, the name’s sole purpose is to help the people you share it with understand and remember it.

  • Describe: The next step is to concisely describe the central message you want to communicate. How concise? One sentence. You want to capture the following:

    • What it is (label).
    • Whom it’s for (user).
    • Why they should care (benefit).
    • How your idea will deliver that benefit (method).
    When you’re ready to try putting together your description, use this template:

    A ___________ [label] that allows ___________ [user] to ___________ [benefit] by ___________ [method].

    Let’s examine the four components of the one-sentence description in more detail. (And yes, I see the irony in taking two pages to describe how to craft one sentence.)

  • Label: The label you assign to your idea refers to the category the idea will be associated with, and how broad or narrow you want that association to be. A label is a trigger feature—that is, when people encounter a new idea, they have a tendency to respond in terms of what they already know. The label you give an idea cues people toward a particular set of associations. For example, imagine that you’ve got a new idea for how people can clean their teeth. You could use either “toothbrush” or “oral care device” as a label. The difference is significant.

    “Toothbrush” is specific and carries a hard-edged association, so everything that you’re presenting about your new idea for “cleaning teeth” is now filtered through the listener’s mental image of how a toothbrush should look, function, be used, priced, sold, distributed, and so on. On the other hand, the label “oral care device” is broader and carries a wider set of associations (mouthwash, floss, whitening strips, and so on). A toothbrush may pop into people’s minds, but they’ll generally be more open to alternative ways of thinking about the cleaning of teeth.
  • User: Although this solution may benefit many different groups (such as producers, buyers, and suppliers), who is the primary end user or consumer you’re trying to reach?

  • Benefit: What’s the one key benefit that the user derives from the solution you’re proposing?

  • Method: This refers to the specific ways your solution will deliver the benefit. A toothbrush, for example, is a handle with a head of bristles that holds toothpaste.

    Coming up with a one-sentence description is more complicated than it sounds. One great way to give yourself a little practice is to spend some time looking closely at the products and services you see every day. Try to extract the four components and describe them in one sentence.

    Example: A digital music system that allows people on the move to carry 1,000 songs in their pocket by synchronizing a portable device with an online music store. (iPod)

    Example: A point-and-shoot video camera that allows anyone with Internet access to figure out, in seconds, how to record and share videos with low-quality footage and stripped-down features. (Flip Ultra)

    To refine your description, ask yourself, “Could this describe anything else?” If the answer is yes, your description is too generic. Look for ways to further customize it to your idea. It’s usually not a matter of making the description longer. Instead, look to make each of the four terms in the sentence more specific.

  • Differentiate: It’s important that you emphasize the differences between your disruptive idea and any competing offerings that may be floating around in the same industry or context. But, being different isn’t enough. Your idea must be different in ways that are valued by and relevant to potential customers. Being different means making tradeoffs in the features and functionality of your disruptive idea.

    Here’s how journalist Robert Capps describes the tradeoffs that Pure Digital had to make to differentiate its Flip cameras from other camcorders:
    • It captured relatively low-quality 640 × 480 footage at a time when Sony, Panasonic, and Canon were launching camcorders capable of recording in 1080 hi-def. It had a minuscule viewing screen, no color-adjustment features, and only the most rudimentary controls. It didn’t even have an optical zoom. But it was small (slightly bigger than a pack of smokes), inexpensive ($150, compared with $800 for a midpriced Sony), and so simple to operate—from recording to uploading—that pretty much anyone could figure it out in roughly 6.7 seconds.14

    As it turned out, these differences were highly valued by customers. Pure Digital sold more than a million units in the first year and quickly captured 17 percent of the camcorder market. In the years since, Sony, Canon, Panasonic, Kodak, and others have come out with similar cameras.

  • Visualize: The old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is just as true in simple situations as it is in complex ones. Try, for example, to describe the physical process for filling a water glass. Even the most basic systems quickly start sounding awkward.15 “When I fill a glass of water, there is a feedback process that causes me to adjust the faucet position, which adjusts the water flow and alters the water level. The goal of the process is to make the water in the glass rise to my desired level.”

    A drawing of the system, or a visual representation of the process, is much easier to digest.

    Consider the process of making a movie. Sure, a script provides a verbal summary of events. But, the storyboard that goes along with the script is far more powerful and efficient. Simple pictures and sketches of each key scene communicate to a diverse set of people working on the set. One simple picture can provide direction to dozens of cast and crewmembers. It can show the set designers what to create, the camera crew where to position the camera, the costume designers what to design, and the actors how to relate.

    Your disruptive idea needs to be visual to concretely describe its components, features, and functionality; in other words, how does it work? For example, if you have an idea for a new set of music headphones with a retractable microphone for cell phone use, you need to show people how it would be worn and used. It is not enough just to list features. Visualizing how your idea works ensures that everyone you show it to will see it the same way.

    Elizabeth Diller, New York architect and co-founder of Diller Scofidio and Renfro, once advised a student, “It’s not enough to say the screens will show digital information.” This leaves matters at a far-too-general level. ‘What digital information will they show?’”16

One final word of advice: Don’t worry about getting your visualization perfect or let yourself get locked-in to whatever details you’ve included. The details you give when you visualize your concepts aren’t necessarily in their final form. In the next stage, we’ll run your idea through all sorts of refinements and changes. But at this stage of the process, any visualization—no matter how rough or approximate—is better than none.

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