Taming the Good Idea Fairy by John Cunningham
“Pragmatic Disruption of the Status Quo”
-The W2O Motto
I love our motto. It’s eccentric but controlled – tells me that you’re going to get “outside the box” but without risking it all. Great things are coming. But it presents a challenge to the mechanics.
Imagine it is 3 ‘o clock on a Friday afternoon and happy hour is creeping closer and closer when all the sudden someone comes into your office with an idea. This isn’t some ordinary idea, it is mind blowing, it makes you re-think everything you ever knew about business, marketing, and probably deserves a minimum of 2 peer reviewed papers in distinguished journals and could even get you on the cover of Wired magazine.
The following Friday, the same thing happens.
And then following, and so on.
Soon a pattern emerges… we have great ideas coming out the wazoo. This phenomenon quickly became known as the “Good Idea Fairy” (G.I.F). She and I are not friends.
As the Chief Mechanic at W2O, it is my team’s job to make these ideas come to fruition. We mechanics have taken a solid beating from the G.I.F. – so we came up with a better way of doing things. We designed a process which enables us to execute pragmatic innovation in software development. We call it The Innovation Pipeline.
Designed around specific and simple goals the Innovation Pipeline means:
- We never have to say “no” to new ideas
- We always have a partner outside of our group to share responsibility
- We keep the business’s risk to a minimum.
This allows us to fire bullets before cannon balls.
The business sponsor plays a very important role in this process. Our development team is good at a lot of things, but sales and marketing aren’t among our core competencies. When the G.I.F. drops off an idea the assumption is that it will be built and production ready the next time we talk. Since we base development on the build, measure, learn loop, we need a partner to define the measurement and get the learnings back to us.
There are 4 phases – Alpha, Beta, Scale and Market. They are designed from Lean Startup methodologies to validate ideas early and often. Each stage has a metrically defined gate through which the product must pass before it can move to the next stage. Costs are closely managed and approval from the firm’s leaders has to take place – and it’s the business sponsor’s job to lead that charge. Click the graphic below for a big, readable version.
Rule of Three
Before you can even start the process you have to go through the first gate – the Rule of Three. This is quite simple and just like pitching an idea at a business or startup competition: can you get 3 of our current clients interested in the idea? When you, the Good Idea Owner, come to us with your great idea we will listen, counsel, and help you develop it – then send you back into the world to talk to clients. Once you have 3 interested customers then you’re ready to pitch the idea to the Executive Team and get approval to fund the Alpha development – the information you collect from the client pitches will be vital in gaining this approval.
In the Alpha stage the goal is to build a “Pitchable Proof of Concept” – this lines up with Eric Ries’s definition of a Concierge MVP but the difference is in our audience. This is simply a way to get the idea across to our clients in order to gauge interest – and often proving to ourselves that our theories are correct. To get past Alpha and into Beta the product must establish its market potential – meaning we have signed up clients for a service and software mixed deliverable. Now – just because we insist that we’re paid to continue the build don’t think this is a profitable area – we invest in the product throughout the process – but the ultimate validation of a product is payment. You have to be able to sell it if we’re going to build it.
In Beta the product goes into an incubation stage – the goal is to get some people using the product in real life. The team working on it will be dedicated to it. The roadmap is scoped out for the next 4 quarters and costs for long term development are flushed out. Some parts are still pieced together by hand and uptime is not guaranteed – but now the product can pass through the second gate in which demand is proven. This can only be done with more sales. Here we’re looking for 3-10 early stage clients who are willing to pay to be the first to play with the new toy. We are validating market demand and getting feedback from the early stage users.
Once market demand is established then we move to the next stage, Scale (aka Production). The company believes in the product, we have established the market, established demand, and the investment is approved. This is where the mechanics can really geek out. We strip the prototype down to the studs and rebuild it with better wiring and bullet proof armor. The infrastructure is automated, documentation created, clouds tapped. The bullet is now a cannon ball, on target, loaded and ready to fire. Once we’re ready to scale the product passes through the last gate.
The final stage is when the product is made Market Ready. This is when it’s given its own identity – a brand for the product. It’s now officially part of our software offering – it has its own website and marketing materials. It’s easy to understand what it does and anyone can sell it. It’s officially graduated. Mazeltov.
This is an iterative process. Risks are kept to a minimum by taking measured steps and pivoting along the way, and market validation is a constant and necessary input. There are of course many more things to think about for a product’s lifecycle – like when do you kill a product, how do you price it, etc. The point of this exercise is to create a minimal process for product creation, and create co-ownership outside of the development group to manage the product’s creation and growth.
With this process in hand we no longer fear the Good Idea Fairy – instead we welcome her with open arms. She’s no longer an intruder in the home but a guest with her own apartment over the garage. Not all good ideas are created equal – this process keep us in the business of awesome.