How do you know if your good idea is the next big thing? (Part 1)

“Creativity, as has been said, consists largely of rearranging what we know in order to find out what we do not know. Hence, to think creatively, we must be able to look afresh at what we normally take for granted.”

— George Kneller, author of The Art and Science of Creativity

Whether you are an intrapreneur, working within an existing business, or an entrepreneur looking to create a business startup, or a student creating an idea for a class project, this question is the one that should drive you to find answers. Unfortunately, it is not a question that can be answered on its own. It takes answering a bunch of other questions of your potential customers, of your own motivations, and of your idea as well.

Two key qualities required to begin this journey include curiosity and creativity. As a communicator or a student at a mass communication program, you should already possess an innate curiosity about people, storytelling, and problem solving. Creativity is a skill that can be cultivated as an individual or as part of group or team exercises, to develop unusual connections, breakthroughs in processes, or insights that lead to product development. Often, the journey to a good idea begins with asking “What if?”

Ideation is the process of coming up with an idea. It is using creativity and questions like “What if?” to imagine ways something can be done differently. The ideation stage is critical to ensure that you are generating good ideas from the start. It involves seeing problems and opportunities, brainstorming around the problems you identify, and doing research to test your assumptions about the market, your customers, and your idea. Refining that initial idea involves assessing the market, looking at trends, and asking questions (and more questions)—and learning from potential customers, investors, and research whether your idea is a good one. The design process consists of a series of steps to test assumptions and ideas. Ideation falls within a larger design process that begins with understanding who you are serving; empathizing, understanding, and defining the needs of that target audience; then ideating around what is needed:

In the Stanford School Design Thinking Process, there six stages to design:

  • Empathizing

  • Defining

  • Ideating

  • Prototyping

  • Testing

  • Sharing

According to 2012 research by Harvard Business School instructor Shikhar Ghosh, 75% of venture-backed startups fail. Ideas are like opinions—everyone has one. If the founders of those failed companies could have answered that question as to whether their idea was the next big thing…well everyone wants that guarantee. But entrepreneurship is risky. Startups are risky. You and your team are using your time and your intellectual property (ideas) to create something new. Generating a great idea from the start is part of a larger set of success factors such as the expertise of the founders, the competitive landscape, speed to market, and other factors.

These other success factors include:

  • The composition of the team itself;

  • The execution of the concept. Is the team adaptable, effective and efficient?

  • The structure or business model shows a clear revenue path and immediate revenue stream;

  • The structure of funding; and

  • The timing of the idea and its entry into the marketplace.

What ultimately matters most is not the idea, but the ability of the team to work together, execute and test an idea, and get their idea out into the marketplace. So the ideation stage is about minimizing the risk of failure by coming up with ideas that the world needs or wants. Successful startups begin with a quality idea, one that is novel, encapsulates a “truth,” and will have good barriers to competitors.

Students will often come to me and say, “I’ve got this great idea, but I’m afraid to share it because someone might steal it.” I often coach students that their fear is preventing them from finding other teammates, coaches, potential investors, and mentors. Timing and execution are king; ideas, well, everyone has one. So if you’re hoarding your ideas, you are limiting one of your key assets, which is timing.

Is an idea something that can be protected? Ideas themselves cannot be copyrighted, but original expressions of ideas in a tangible medium can earn legal protection. Review the following resources to understand what can and can’t be protected under U.S. copyright, patent or trademark law.

But what if you don’t have a great idea? How do you practice stretching your imagination to be more creative? And what is creativity anyway? A recent article in the alumni magazine for the University of Central Florida spoke to the entrepreneurial culture that has been a part of the DNA of the institution since its founding as a technical school in 1963. Administrators and faculty from all types of disciplines were asked to weigh in. Michael Pape, Dr. Phillips Entrepreneur in Residence, says creativity is the hunt for an answer to a secret:

“Creativity is a process of bringing something new into existence that challenges prevailing assumptions. It’s fundamental to human existence. To challenge prevailing assumptions, you need to discover secrets.” Pape says “to observe, embrace chaos, and try to frame it into form, you might uncover those secrets in the process.”

Rick Hall, production director for the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy, says that creativity is a teachable skill.

“Creativity is really just your ability to associate two disparate ideas in a way that others haven’t thought of before. You’ve got to proceduralize creativity. And never let a good mistake go to waste.”


Pape says the creative process begins with observation. As a curious journalist, I am always on the lookout for problems, opportunities and new ideas, observing what is happening around me, listening to what my neighbors are talking about, and what people are struggling with in their everyday lives. And as Hall suggests, we can “proceduralize creativity” by increasing the juxtapositions, the opportunities for the collisions of disparate ideas that might spark the next idea.

As an avid reader and a bit of a science geek, I am always scanning publications inside and outside my field that feature innovations in science, medicine, technology, and journalism such as Wired, FastCompany, and Scientific American. First, I’m learning about innovations and how others leveraged their ideas into businesses. Second, I’m learning how founders adapt their ideas as they learn. Third, I begin to see the world through others stories, experiences, and disciplines that help me to “look afresh” at the world as George Knelle suggests.

Scanning the environment like this is what led me to create in 2015 as I observed what was occurring in social media spaces online and the challenges of women journalists and journalists of color in maintaining a voice online in the midst of targeted online harassment. While the idea began because of my own personal experience and the current news of Gamergate attacks, I quickly validated that this was a common experience among journalists and media organizations. The idea for TrollBusters was validated initially by the response from female journalists themselves at a hackathon. However, we quickly began diving into global scholarly research that further pointed to the scope and scale of the problem we were addressing.

Through deep interviews with women journalists, we discovered a reluctance to report abuses and a lack of knowledge about what to do next after an attack. The interviewees also talked about the lack of support from peers and management. We started by developing awareness campaigns and online courses that made visible what was happening all over the world and helped women journalists take control of their own protection and speak up about the online harassment they are experiencing.

Look to the work of futurists and others who attempt to predict the future of technology, education, manufacturing, and other fields. Amy Webb, founder of the Future Today Institute, examines trends in technology, media, and communications. In her new book, The Signals are Talking, she says there are “signals” that everyone can watch for, beyond what is covered in the technology press. She says “It’s not like there’s a singular source where you would go to find the unusual suspects at the fringe. Instead, it’s a series of guiding questions she uses in her explorations:

  • Who do I know of that’s been working directly and indirectly in this space?

  • Who’s funding this work?

  • Who’s encouraging experimentation?

  • Who might be directly impacted if this technology succeeds one way or the other?

  • Who could be incentivized to work against any change?

  • Who might see this technology as just the starting-off point for something else?”

Then the curious, like Amy, get going. They start asking questions. And reading. And listening.

The New Media Consortium started asking these questions of its employees, who were trying to keep up with the changing technology landscape. They realized that many policy makers, industry leaders, innovators, educators, and others struggled to keep up with technology trends. They started the NMC Horizon Project to chart emerging technologies and their implications for teaching, learning, and creative inquiry. (Note: They have ceased operation, but the reports are still available. Accenture, a strategy and consulting company, creates a technology trends report. Its 2017 Technology Vision report details disruptive technology trends and deep industry knowledge. CBInsights tracks trends across multiple industry sectors including automotive, financial tech, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, AR/VR, and other technology areas.

In the media field, I’ve mentioned publications like Wired and FastCompany that provide a deep dive into media and technology innovations. The Pew Research Center offers deep research into social, religious, technology, and media trends and usage. Other media-focused publications include MediaShift, TechCrunch, Mediagazer, and VentureBeat.

CrunchBase is a database of startups, product development timelines, funding rounds, and other information. Add in subscriptions to online newsletters for the startup and entrepreneurship world like Entrepreneur and Fast Company, Inc. and others to keep an eye out on emerging, competing ideas in the market. Find these types of sources and scour them to cultivate new ways of seeing the world, the first step to creating innovative ideas.


LUMA Institute defines human-centered design: “Human-Centered Design (HCD) is the discipline of developing solutions in the service of people.” Human-centered design (HCD) is being adopted now by more organizations, strategists, and development practitioners and has been taught in places like Stanford’s D-School (Design School). HCD views people as the core focus of design and development. According to LUMA Institute, which works with organizations seeking to innovate:

“Every story of a good innovation — whether it’s a new product, a new service, a new business model or a new form of governance — begins and ends with people. It starts with careful observation of human needs, and concludes with solutions that meet or exceed expectations.”

When I teach innovation, I separate the Human-Centered Design process into three phases:

1. Inspiration Phase: Learn directly from the people you’re designing for as you immerse yourself in their lives and come to deeply understand their needs.

2. Ideation Phase: Make sense of what you learned, identify opportunities for design, and prototype possible solutions.

3. Implementation Phase: Bring your solution to life and eventually to market. And you’ll know that your solution will be a success because you’ve kept the very people you’re looking to serve at the heart of the process.

Individuals, teams, and other groups use brainstorming and ideation to come up with better ideas — ideas that speed processes, ideas that create new products, ideas that create innovations, and ideas that solve problems. But usually that activity happens in a vacuum —a team sits around a whiteboard coming up with ideas. With human-centered design, inspiration comes through exploration of actual people, their problems, and their needs. So ideation is like an incubator for experimentation. The better you become at asking questions of potential customers and getting them answered quickly, the better you can be at shaping your idea into something that meets a need.

Ideation also involves knowing your outcome/deliverable. If you are creating ideas for a student competition, you’ll want to know the rules and what the judges will be evaluating. Some competitions give you the problem you are attempting to solve. Your measure of success will be in how closely your idea aligns with the competition goals. I’ve often judged student competitions where there are different rubrics. The simplest I’ve used asks founders to ask themselves three questions:

1. Feasibility: Can we do this?

2. Viability: Should we do this?

3. Desirability: Do they want this?

The most valuable design sits at the intersection of these three questions and will help guide you in positioning your ideas to meet market needs.

The rubric I developed for an international innovators cup competition provides a good template to use to determine if your idea is innovative:

  • Presentation was compelling, easy to understand, and described the problem and a “fresh” solution.

  • Meets the threshold for innovation. Judges should be guided by the reality that truly transformational innovation is rare. Incremental innovation is more the norm but is equally valuable in our competition so long as it provides an inspired solution to the challenge that has been posed.

  • Takes full advantage of new media tools, platforms, technologies, and applications in use today. These might include things like interactive design, gaming, geolocation-based tools, informational graphics, and all aspects of social media, etc.

  • Addresses the problem within its context. It should demonstrate that it is offering an idea or approach that is supported by facts and/or research and demonstrates an understanding of today’s media and communication landscape, including familiarity with any similar products, apps, or services.

  • Understands possible roadblocks, competition, and need for a sustainable advantage. The solution shows an understanding of the roadblocks that need to be overcome, the competition, and how the solution can be sustainable.

  • Provides a solution that clearly describes its main features and benefits and presents a valid value proposition with the key activities clearly outlined.

I also added this “diversity enhancement” component to the competition questions to ensure student teams thought about and integrated the needs of underserved and underrepresented users/customers/audiences in their solutions.

  • Solution embraces diverse viewpoints, populations, or audiences. The solution realistically includes the potential to expand media diversity, including serving underserved populations:

In part two of this blog, we’ll look at specific team exercises to get your group thinking expansively, increasing the juxtaposition of disparate ideas, and generating ideas that we can test.

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