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All ideas and every project, from building a deck to launching a new business venture starts in the same place. You have to ideate, validate, plan, then execute it. Let’s break that down. 

Ideate

Ideation is the third step in Design Thinking (between empathize, define, prototype, and test) is all about generating ideas. But the Nielsen Norman Group defines ideation as “the process of generating a broad set of ideas on a given topic, with no attempt to judge or evaluate them.” It is the time in any product launch where creativity and imagination consider how your customers’ lives will improve after you have released your new product.

In the ideation phase, you draft and explore as many ideas as possible. While some of these ideas will be outrageous or go directly into the reject pile, some will go on to be your potential solutions. The idea behind an ideation session is that if you look at the problem from every possible perspective, you will uncover new angles to explore. 

Builtin in an innovative and creative environment, free of judgment, if carried out properly, an ideation session is where innovation thrives. And it should help you find that groundbreaking solution that your customers have been missing!

Coming in all shapes and sizes, when it comes to ideation, the first thing to remember there are no bad ideas. Instead of dismissing ideas as ones that won’t work, remember the best business concepts are an unusual combination of ideas that become meaningful once they are combined. Think about each idea like a puzzle piece; although seemingly insignificant at first, it could contribute to the bigger picture. That’s why you have to capture every idea.

Far too often during ideation sessions, only a fraction of the ideas offered get written down. The key to successful ideation is to track every thought so you can return to them as building blocks for future sessions. For this reason, I suggest investing in lots of Post-Its and Sharpies. Limit one idea per Post-It, so your thoughts can be moved around later. Using a Sharpie will force you to keep your ideas compact. Whenever possible, use visuals instead of words, to clarify what you mean. 

When done right, ideation will help you to focus on your customers, to accumulate the unique perspectives and creativity of different people to recognize diverse ideas, and ultimately, to innovate in ways that you never thought possible. It will also help you: 

  • Ask the right questions and innovate with a strong focus on your customers, their needs, and your insights about them.
  • Move beyond the obvious solutions, thereby increasing the innovation potential of your solution.
  • Bring together the perspectives and strengths of your team members.
  • Uncover unexpected areas of innovation.
  • Create volume and variety in your product options.
  • Get simple solutions out of your team’s heads and drive your team to innovate beyond them.

Validate

You have your idea, now what? Whether you’re an aspiring entrepreneur or an established business leader, after you ideate, you need to validate. 

Most ideas stall during the process of getting them to market. It can feel overwhelming. But if you validate your ideas first, or prove the value the product will offer your customers, the process becomes manageable. 

Start validating by researching:

  • Does this idea exist already? 
  • If it does exist, how can you improve the idea to satisfy the market better?
  • If it does not exist, is there a market for it?

If your idea is unique and there is a market for it, you then need to validate your idea with potential stakeholders and customers. Talk to people about your idea, especially the people you trust. What you want now is brutally honest feedback. We tend to get stuck in “idea lock,” where we are convinced our idea is perfect, regardless of the feedback we receive. But if you are the only person who truly thinks the idea is good, then it is time to reassess.

When your idea has verbal validation, consider developing a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), or a working prototype that only has the essential features. An MVP will help you determine if your customers will use your product. If you have a technology idea, such as a smartphone app, look at crowdsourcing or Incubators to find the assistance you need. Testing and allowing others to test your MVP can help you determine if the idea was just that, an idea, or something that people would actually use. If it turns out you and everyone you let test your MVP would never use it, don’t further invest in the idea. 

However, if your testing goes well, you received positive feedback, and your idea is profitable, it’s time for you to start building your brand. In our fast-moving market, an idea that you validated today may be unnecessary, or even obsolete, tomorrow.  And unless your product uses proprietary new technology, someone else might have already brought a similar idea to the market, and you don’t know it. 

At this point, you might fear that talking about your idea will lead to some else stealing it. Although this is a valid concern, you should work under the assumption that someone will eventually develop a newer, better iteration. Rather than worrying about protecting your ideas from others, the key to success is getting your idea to market first, then staying ahead of any innovations. 

At the end of the day, you might have the best business plan in the world, but without customers, your business won’t exist long. Create a thoughtful customer-acquisition plan and marketing strategy and be prepared to explain it to investors, partners, and stakeholders, as this will undoubtedly be the first question they ask. So, to get you started, work on these three steps first:

Step 1: Choose your branding

Start by choosing a great name and securing the website domain to create, at a minimum, a sharp business landing page

Step 2: Secure your branding assets

Secure your business name with every social media site you can. Even if you do not use them, this will ultimately improve your search engine optimization by keeping others from securing and using these handles. Then start leveraging these resources to build a fan base.

Step 3: Create a customer-acquisition plan

Before you create a lengthy business plan, which more than likely will be obsolete before you even launch, focus on answering these two questions:

  • “How do I get my first customer?”
  • “How do I get my n-th customer?”

Plan

“Without a careful, planned approach to execution, strategic goals cannot be attained. Developing such a logical approach, however, represents a formidable challenge to management.” -Lawrence G. Hrebiniak, in Making Strategy Work: Leading Effective Execution and Change.

Every project tells a story. But to get it right demands detailed project planning and management about its goals, team, timing, and deliverables. Some of those stories are short and to the point, while others are epic novels rife with twists and turns. No matter the length, every story has an arc—or as we call it in the project management world, a project plan.

A project plan is a document that contains a project’s scope and objectives, most commonly represented in the form of a Gantt chart to make it easy to communicate to stakeholders. It is the output deliverable of project planning, which is the process of establishing the scope, objectives, and milestones of a project. 

Many entrepreneurs become swept up in putting out fires, rather than proactively creating an actionable plan. Former Silicon Valley CEO Bahaa Moukadam points out that most entrepreneurs fail to execute because they don’t have a “framework or methodology in place that is repeatable.” This framework should connect organizational strategies to reflect individual team member’s goals. Here is the four-step process I use to ensure my client develop an actionable plan:

Step 1: Set clear priorities.

Most teams fail to carry out their strategy when they set too many priorities. Instead, focus on the most important thing by establishing one priority with supporting initiatives. If at any point throughout the process your priorities shift, then you must reset your initiatives to reflect this change. Having too many priorities is like trying to keep too many balls in the air. A problem arises if only one gets out of place, and chances are good that eventually, all the balls fall to the ground.

Step 2: Collect and analyze data.

Entrepreneurs often specify measurable goals in their strategic plans. But once the planning process shifts to the execution stage, the document is too often set on a shelf and not revisited. The key to ensuring execution is staying on top of the results. This means developing key performance indicators (or KPIs) that can be measured and are monitored on an ongoing basis. Your KPIs need to procure operating data related to your initiatives and evaluate results on a set schedule. This evaluation should clarify what’s working and reveal how you can enhance them to boost performance. When results fail, determine what processes aren’t working and make immediate adjustments to prevent further deterioration.

Step 3: Maintain communication. 

Without constant communication, employees can lose touch with your goals, progress, and objectives. Over time, the team or its members might veer off course, leading to poor results and possibly disastrous effects on the organization. To ensure that the entire organization stays in sync with the project vision and strategic plan, your team should gather periodically to debrief on project updates. 

Hosting a daily huddle can provide rapid-fire updates specifically tailored to the group. The entrepreneur can oversee the daily huddles at small companies. But in larger organizations, line managers should take responsibility. 

Moukadam recommends concluding each meeting with a review of decisions made, who’s responsible for what, and when it’s due. After the meeting, a summary of the meeting points should be shared with your team to ensure they remain in focus. 

Step 4: Evaluate the strategy. 

The executive and management teams should meet regularly, ideally monthly, to evaluate the project’s progress. These strategic meetings should be more in-depth and designed to determine if and what changes are required. By discussing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, these meetings should help determine how sound the plan is. By aiming to exploit strengths and opportunities while mitigating weaknesses and threats, these meetings can also reveal changes that should be made within the organization, industry, and economy

Your plan is almost always more important than raising all the money or having the lowest cost structure or even hiring the very best employees. It is generally even more important than having a better product or service than your competitors. Everything you do should be guided by your plan, meaning if you have a great business plan, then it is your business.

Without a plan, its nearly impossible to successfully run your business. At best, you are running your business by the seat of your pants.  At worst, you are setting yourself up for unnecessary challenges and disappointments. That’s why having a solid business plan is an enormous step toward strategizing, positioning, and managing your business better.

Execute

Execution is a disciplined and logical set of connected activities undertaken by an organization to make a strategy work. But often translating your idea from thought to action proves challenging. Only once you convert concepts into behaviors, you have something you can observe, measure, and manage. And the best place to start is at these three components: 

Component 1: Sharpen your Focus

Focus provides clarity. This is necessary to make decisions that support your most important goals and results in a clearly defined pathway to success. A sharp focus answers what questions, such as what do you need to do to execute your strategy?

Here are some manageable steps to sharpen your focus: 

  • Keep it simple. Think in threes to simplify strategies, metrics, and actions. 
  • Apply the 80/20 principle, which means performing 80 percent of the most important work with 20 percent of your time and effort.
  • Identify the one activity that most directly helps you execute your plan. Align your one thing with the organization’s most important. Ask your team, “What is the most valuable thing you can do right now?”
  • Create decision hurdles to filter new opportunities through your purpose. 
  • Say no to activities, tasks, reports, meetings, and projects that do not directly support your plan. Start by determining where things fit into the four D’s: do it, delegate it, defer it, or dump it.

Component 2: Build your Competence

Competence encompasses all the skills, systems, processes, and tools your team uses to achieve its goals. The result is the ability to commit to, measure, and hit your targets. Building competence answers the how questions, such as how well you execute your strategy?

Here are some manageable steps to build your competence: 

Treasure your talent. Select smart and use the 3 x 3 x 3 interview process where three people interview three candidates on three separate occasions. 

Treat employee development as a perpetual priority. 

Coach for success with four steps: explain, ask, involve, and appreciate.

Create repeatable work systems that allow everyone on your team to collaborate with clear roles. (Lead the team, Do the work, Share the expertise, Get informed). 

Innovate daily- what’s the small idea? Start there. 

Component 3: Ignite your Passion

Passion creates a sense of connectedness between your team and the work they do and everyone’s contribution. Igniting passion answers the why questions, such as why are you executing your strategy?

You need to paint a picture that connects each team member to a broader purpose. Always start by asking four fundamental questions:

  1. Where are we going? (Goals)
  2. What are we doing to get there? (Plans)
  3. How can I contribute? (Roles)
  4. What’s in it for me? (Rewards)

Communicating your answers to these questions helps you to avoid the silence spiral, explain what you want to your team, and create an environment where everyone on your team feels respected. You’ll notice that your team will naturally start to appreciate the performances and the people behind them. 

When you consistently sharpen your focus, build your competence, and ignite your passion, you plant the seeds of victory. If you don’t see tangible results immediately, remember that growth happens first under the surface. As you stick with it, momentum builds, creating a self-reinforcing cycle of victory.