The Idea Lifecycle: Why Good Ideas Are Not Enough

It doesn't matter how many good ideas you have - if you don't do anything with them, they're worthless. Here's how to make the most of the ideas in your head and turn them into something useful.
10
minute read
Ideas
October 7, 2020

You Gonna Do Something With That...?

'Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It's a gift to the world and every being in it. Don't cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you've got.' Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

Ideas are cheap. They're everywhere, we're obsessed with them, and people are 'having them' all the time. Some people are positively stuffed with the things, brimming with excitement for what they've conjured.

But if ideas don't have somewhere to go, don't have someone to do something with them, they wither on the vine and die.

Like a tree falling noiselessly in a forest, an idea that has nowhere to go isn't really an idea at all. It's just a thought in your head. It's a thought with potential, yes, but it is just a thought all the same.

In other words: so what if you've got a good idea? You've gotta do something with it!

When we have an idea it is little more than the first, green shoot of what it might later grow into. It cannot grow alone. It has to be nurtured and fed and worked on and cared for and watched over until it grows to fill its potential.

This isn't easy to do, but it's worth doing; those that attend to and nurture their ideas are those that stand the greatest chance of making a dent in the world.

You've Probably Got Enough Ideas Already

If you're reading this, the chances are pretty good that you've already got more ideas than you know what to do with.

Don't think so? Consider this. In the book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson effectively takes our opinion of ideas down a peg or two by describing just how commonplace they truly are: 'We like to think of our ideas as $40,000 incubators, shipped direct from the factory, but in reality they've been cobbled together with spare parts that happened to be sitting in the garage.'

All ideas are a form of bricolage - the assembly of new things from the detritus we find laying about us. They are not valuable in and of themselves, but it is their potential that we're interested in.

Of course, not every idea is made equal. Some are better than others. Some work only in specific circumstances. Others work only at specific times. Just having a head filled with them is not enough.

So while it's no bad thing to have a head full of good ideas, there are two other things we need to be doing to make the most of them.

The Idea Feedback Cycle

Most of us obsess over generating ideas. There are no end of blog posts and books and youtube videos for how to come up with ideas. But as we've already seen, this is only part of the puzzle and you've probably already got a load of ideas anyway.

A complete and healthy idea lifecycle includes generating, assessing and doing. We need all three to make the most of our ideas.

In other words, the mass of ideas sitting in our heads are all raw materials that need processing into something useful. As we continue to assess and work on our ideas the overall quality of ideas we have and end up actually doing can only improve.

The reason? The idea feedback cycle.

As we evaluate our ideas, our work improves and, as we work on our ideas, we come up with even more - improving our ability to come up with and spot even better ideas. This is why combining all three elements is so important. Without including any step of the process we either have no ideas of our own, no way to stop ourselves from committing to bad ideas or no ideas to commit to whatsoever.

There are three feedback loops in the idea feedback cycle. Two of them depend on us actually working on our ideas.

1. Between assessing and generating: are the ideas you are coming up with good enough? How good are they? Are they the right kind of ideas? Are there enough of them? Do you need to take a different approach to generating ideas?

2. Between doing and assessing: based on what you're doing, how good are your assessments? Is the right stuff getting through? Are you deciding to do the right things? Do the criteria need changing slightly? Drastically?

3. Between doing and generating: based on what you're doing, are you generating more ideas? Are you generating ideas that will help with what you're doing? Are you coming up with ideas that you wouldn't have had you not been working on your ideas?

(Moving your ideas through this process to access these feedback loops can be slow, but we might also use a Creativity Kanban to help us do this.)

With all of this in mind, here's a detailed look at each stage of the idea creation process.

Generating Ideas

When confronted with a sudden, urgent need for ideas, people start talking about 'brainstorms'. To the surprise of absolutely no-one who has ever had to take part in one, they are a terrible way to generate ideas. This is due in large part to availability bias, where we tend to suggest and favour the things we have heard about most recently.

This is often not the most useful way to approach ideas because they are only a snapshot in time of what we are currently thinking about. They can also be subject to political and interpersonal pressures, a very good way to salt the earth when it could otherwise have borne at least some fruit.

Instead, we need a solution that grants us the ability to maintain ideas in the longer term - combining the fragmentary ideas of yesterday and today into the whole ideas of the future. James Webb Young's Technique for Producing Ideas is a good place to start, and it can be applied to virtually any field of expertise.

1. Gather Raw Material

What 'raw material' you choose to gather will depend on your field or interest, and you should expect to go deep in this area. However, spreading your search wider into totally unrelated and unexpected areas is where real novelty and excitement can emerge.

Gutenberg's printing press, for example, came from his appropriation of the technology used to crush grapes for wine. There is huge value in tinkering and experimenting with the thoughts, products and innovations of totally unrelated fields.

2. Process the Material

With all sorts of raw material gathered from all corners, work it over. Read through documents while taking notes, dismantle technology while documenting it, try to learn a new technique you've heard about, download and play with a new app or piece of software.

3. Drop It Completely

After a time of focus on the idea, drop it entirely. Forget about it, even. If you have built the necessary structure and system to hold the idea then you will be able to return to it when you need it. Continue to gather and process other material, but always move forwards.

4. Let Ideas Surface - Then Capture Them

Over time, ideas will emerge. They may emerge in their entirety or, more likely, as fragments. One new fragment may require a fragment that you have stored away earlier, or it may need to wait for another fragment later down the line. Maybe it's both.

Either way, the emergence of ideas and the fragments that we build them from is asynchronous. We need a dependable means of capturing, recording and connecting the ideas we have.

I've written a number of times about how much I enjoy using Roam Research (I'm even writing this article in Roam), but ideas are accelerated considerably by being able to link and connect between them over time. This becomes considerably harder if they're not documented somewhere.

Assessing Ideas

It stands to reason that we want to be spending more of our time on good ideas than on bad ones. But separating the wheat from the chaff is easier said than done.

While our feedback loops will help us as we go, there are two big questions we need to ask ourselves before we commit to working on our ideas.

Question 1: Is It a Good Idea for You?

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear makes the compelling case that your time is best spent 'playing games you can win'.

If you're an experienced software developer with two brilliant ideas - one for a piece of software and one for a new line of sustainable clothing - you are better placed to 'win' at the software idea, not the clothing idea.

If you have a tall, broad shouldered physique you are more likely to win at being a swimmer than a jockey.

If you have a gregarious, outgoing personality, you are more likely to win at being a YouTuber than someone who doesn’t.

All of this is to say that some of us are better suited to do better at some things than we are at others. Not everyone can be good at everything. To identify the games you can win at, Clear identifies the following four questions:

What's ‘fun’ for me and ‘work’ for others?

What makes me lose track of time?

Where do I get greater returns than the average person?

What comes naturally to me?

If you are able to find something that works well across all of those four questions, you are in the right playing field and your idea stands a better chance.

Question 2: Is It a Good Idea for Others?

'In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create.' David Ogilvy

Even if you can win and do well at something, it doesn't mean that people will necessarily notice or care. You may have been able to use your insights to create the world's best chocolate teapot, but there aren't many people who will either need or want one.

While this is as big and ancient a question as the fundamental concepts of sales and marketing themselves, things that are beautiful, enjoyable, inspiring, useful, entertaining, solve problems and expand possibilities tend to do better than the things that don’t. The ones that do the best, though, are ones that do those things AND connect with the most people.

Is your idea beautiful? Good. Do lots of people agree? Better.

Is your idea useful? Good. Would most people find it useful? Better.

Does your idea solve a problem? Good. Would it solve a problem for an entire demographic? Better.

If your idea struggles to be good in any of these respects, give it a second thought.

Working On Ideas

Once you have selected an idea to work on, you have no time to waste. Life is short, after all, and there's no time like the present.

Start Now

Ideas don't hang around. 'Day one' brings energy and vigour - our ideas are exciting and timely and we want to see them out in the world. Do not wait for the timing to be perfect, just get on with things. Even if it's messy. You don't need a vision, a mission, a schedule or a grand plan, you just need to get your foot in the door so you can carry on with it tomorrow. If you think too much about it for too long, it will soon be too late. (Here's the how and the why of getting started right now.)

Start Small

Many get hung up on the idea of 'being big'. People with business ideas dream of running huge companies, people with notions of becoming a creative artist dream of major exhibitions, people learning to code imagine their apps being downloaded by millions.

As Derek Sivers asks, is your goal to be big? Or to be helpful? 'Being helpful' doesn't necessarily mean you are providing a service or product, but rather that what you work on and produce has utility, interest and value in the world.

You don't need to work on an idea that will help a million people. Finding just one person is the best kind of start. So start there, first, and grow later.

Exploit/Pivot

While you work, assess as you go. You will find that your ideas will either begin bearing fruit... or fall flat.

Where the going is good, continue to exploit and leverage the idea as much as you possibly can. For example - if you start a YouTube channel and quickly gain an interested following, apply more focus and effort on this area.

However, if you have spent the last year trying to get work as a portrait photographer, take what you've learnt about editing and composition and pivot into a different kind of photography or a complementary career path like retouching.

If you are having a hard time finding what to exploit, do as Steph Smith says and 'create more nodes of optimisation':

'...if you’re making changes every year, you only have maybe 80 in your entire life to make. Instead, try testing things intentionally every month or even every week. Pilot a lot and then double down when you have found your path towards “good”.'

So whatever you do, just make sure you always fish where the fish are.

The Tortoise and the Hare

The success and achievements of younger people is fetishised in all quarters. Journalists, tech Twitter and VCs alike carry the bias that entrepreneurs - for example - have to be young to be successful. No matter how many breathless paid-for puff-pieces in Forbes you might point towards, this is untrue.

A 2018 MIT study found that successful founders were not young but middle-aged, with an average age of 45. While having ideas is one thing, the number you have and the time you have to work on them - not to mention your social ties and 'life experience' - all play a part, too.

This has two implications.

The first: if you've got a good idea now, don't make the mistake that you've somehow got loads of time to make it happen. Get to work on it. Immediately. Somebody might get there before you... and they might be better connected.

The second: don't worry if you haven't 'made it' yet. Keep at it.

Whatever you do, just keep producing, assessing and working on ideas where you shine and can bring value to the lives of others. Whether you strike gold or not doesn't matter, you'll have made the world just that tiny bit better along the way.

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