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Don’t get stuck studying your idea!

January 17, 2020

Don’t get stuck studying your idea!


It can be all too easy to get stuck in the trap of Plan – Do – Study, Study, Study…

In Innovation Engineering we follow the process of PDSA (Plan – Do - Study – Act) to keep our innovative ideas moving quickly towards development. This is grounded in the teachings of Dr. W. Edwards Deming.

In an innovation project we do this is to mitigate risks or what we call ‘Death Threats.’ - Things that could kill our idea before we invest money in development.

Here is an example of what the process would look like:

Death Threat (Something that could kill the idea): Customers won’t find our idea meaningful and unique.
Plan (Desired Outcome): 80% of customers that provided feedback will agree that the idea is meaningful and unique.
Do: Send out a survey to 100 existing and potential customers to get their thoughts on the idea and their intent to buy.
Study: What did we learn from the survey?
Act: Based on what we learned, can we move the idea forward another day or should we kill it?

The trap that people often fall into when working on a new idea, is to get stuck studying.

“We just need a bit more data.” – There have been countless times when we’ve heard this.

This can lead to huge project delays and essentially the idea being put on the back burner because it has timed out.

When an idea loses momentum due to this “Study Trap,” it can be really challenging to bring it back to life months or years later.

Here are two reasons why you shouldn’t allow this to happen:

  1. Your numbers won’t drastically change with a larger sample size. 9 times out of 10 your results will stay the same or very similar, but you will spend much more time and money to find that out and make the same decision.
  2. If you spend too much time studying a certain ‘Death Threat’ to your idea, your idea can become irrelevant because the market has changed or another group was able to launch the same idea quicker than you.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind when you are working through these cycles:

  1. Run your PDSA cycles rapidly. We recommend a week at most to complete a cycle. The faster you can learn and reflect, the more you reduce your overall risk.
  2. Break your “Death Threat” down into smaller chunks when in the early stages. For example, if your threat was: Older Generations won’t be able to adopt the necessary technology for our idea.

What could you do to break this down and run quick PDSA cycles?

Your mind might naturally go somewhere like this: “We should develop the technology and test it with 500 people in the specific generation segment and see if we can get 80% adoption. That way we can reduce our risk before we roll it out to the world” – This sounds good in theory, but it will take a very long time and you might find out that your new idea is a no-go after spending time, energy, money and resources to build it. This type of testing would absolutely be applicable in the later stages of development when you are looking for feedback on the functional product. At the beginning you should be focused on cheap and rapid learning.

What would be a few faster, cheaper options?

  • Send out a survey to your target audience to learn their preferences (Use phone, email, stand in the mall and walk up to people for a couple hours).
  • Do rapid internet research to find out how others have gotten over the hurdle of technology adoption and draw some parallels to your current situation.
  • Talk to experts who have experience in similar areas.

All you need to prove is that the Death Threat won’t kill your idea. It’s ok if it makes your idea hard to do. True innovation is always hard at first, but you’ve learned that your idea can be done as far as this specific Death Threat goes.

  1. In the early stages, you are trying to prove that your idea could be done. Not necessarily how. When you are working through your list of Death Threats, seek to learn that there are options out there to move past it. Once you know that that Death Threat will no longer kill your idea, move on to the next one. Don’t spend time building out a development plan, until you’ve removed all the Death Threats. If it turns out that your idea has to be killed, you’ll be glad you didn’t waste time building out development plans that will never happen.

Once all of the Death Threats have been mitigated and you’ve got your PDSA cycles to back them up, you are ready to make your Go/No Go decision for development.

One of the other benefits of reducing your risk this way is in the presentation to your leadership team. When an executive says “Our elderly customers would never adopt a technology like this.” – Instead of back-peddling, you can say:

“I appreciate you bringing that up. We actually considered that in the beginning and here are the three things we did to mitigate that risk and what we learned. Based on that, are you also comfortable calling that risk mitigated, or is there something else you’d like to see?”

The PDSA method keeps things moving quickly in your projects and can greatly reduce your innovation risk.

If you’d like to learn more, let’s chat!

-David Moskal

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