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How to Kill Ideas

Photo by Per Lööv on Unsplash

Ideas are a dime a dozen. You and your team can (properly facilitated) get 100 ideas in 30 minutes. Selecting the best is another 30 minutes. Creating an action plan is maybe another five.

If your innovative approach is to concentrate your creative efforts in ideation around opportunities that are worth solving, and relevant for your business, it's not particularly difficult to start a lot of projects. In fact, new projects are started all the time with success metrics and delivery KPIs to boot.

But what about the ideas (and projects) that turned out not to be very good business ideas after all? You probably know of projects that should have been killed long ago, but somehow they keep lingering in the business.

What happens is based on an interesting psychological phenomenon: People tend to fall in love with the solution rather than the problem. Projects grow based on solutions, and business cases are constructed based on assumptions that might never be tested. And they will be harder and harder to kill. Eventually they might turn into fully implemented solutions that are far from optimal.


Being in love with the problem - the customer pain, the stone-in-the-shoe, the job-to-be-done - is a discipline deeply rooted in design, and we also know it from 300 years of practicing the scientific method in basic research. Here, we are mostly concerned with shooting down our ideas. That's what experimentation is all about. For some reason, this discipline is difficult to embed in businesses. But here is some advice:

  1. Codify and document your critical assumptions. An assumption is something that needs to be true for your idea to work, and a critical assumption carries significant risk. Map them visually so you can distinguish critical from non-critical assumptions.

  2. Start initiatives to test assumptions. That might involve stakeholders around the business, desktop research, and subject matter experts from the outside. The best you can do is of course to involve customers.

  3. Measure your performance in converting assumptions to knowledge over time. Keep refining the assumptions.

  4. If you're struggling with proving particular assumptions, maybe you need to change something to get rid of them. If that's not possible, the idea is a bad business idea and the project should be killed.

  5. Likewise, if you're struggling with improving your knowledge-assumptions-ratio over time (essentially your performance in learning), you are not removing risk at all, and the project should be killed.

You can create a simple template for an assumption that states what you believe to be true, how you intend to find out, and what data will satisfy you to assert the assumption and convert it to knowledge.

This is a hypothesis-driven approach to doing new things while mitigating risk, and by starting with the most critical assumptions first, you will be able to kill ideas and projects at the earliest possible opportunity.

From a governance perspective, you should reward your teams for killing ideas early because other ideas have more potential. The key idea is that you will be able to investigate a wider portfolio of new initiatives by failing fast.

• Thanks for your interest.

Photo by Per Lööv on Unsplash

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