How to Develop an Idea with Less Pain (and Waste)

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Teams experience pain, go slow, and waste effort when expectations around an idea aren’t aligned. The solution is having a shared understanding and language for how to correctly develop an idea.

“But that idea won’t ever scale.” 

“We can’t ship until it’s polished.” 

“It’s taking forever to ship something of value.” 

“It feels like this idea is creating tech debt.” 

“We always ship half-baked work.” 

If you’re like me, these statements give you a flashback of team discussions where frustrations and blood pressure rise. These are the moments when expectations of team members miss each other like skeet shooting with a crooked barrel. These heated debates are triggered when one team member believes an idea should be done one way while another seems to be off by miles in aligning to an outcome. Take a deep breath. I’m sorry for the PTSD. Let’s talk about why this happens and what to do about it. 

The Core Issue 

This core issue is these teams don’t have the language and reference points to align expectations around an idea. The difference in expectations is often about the level of quality, completeness of the solution, level of maturity needed, or the tools and tactics required at a given time. in the heat of the moment, teams lack alignment as they have lost sight of what’s actually needed to ensure an idea is successful. For teams to gain alignment on how to execute an idea, they need to understand how an idea matures. 

“For teams to gain alignment on how to execute an idea,  
they need to understand how an idea matures.” 

Why This Matters 

We all want to work with teams that move smoothly and methodically through problems while delivering real value to customers and the business. When the team has a shared understanding and language for how an idea matures, expectations can be clearly managed, and the team will be freed up to function well and make meaningful progress. This kind of alignment will unlock your teams to evaluate multitudes of ideas with efficiency. 

The lack of team’s alignment always results in wasted effort. When ideas prematurely mature it’s like adding ingredients at the wrong time and the wrong order when cooking. You are making things more complicated at the wrong time and the result will be wasted food. 

Maturity Cycles of an Idea 

Ideas go through three cycles to ensure that the right idea produces the intended value. They go through distinct cycles because an idea may go through multiple interactions of a cycle. The three cycles are: 

  1. Prototype Cycles 

  1. Test Cycles 

  1. Scale Cycles 

Each cycle exists to address a specific point in the problem-solving process. 

1. Prototype Cycles 

Primary Question: Are we solving the right problem? 

“A quality product for the wrong problem is a wasted solution.” 

In this cycle, solutions are used to determine if the correct problem is being addressed. At this point, it’s the wrong time to attempt the ideal solution. Being solution-focused without making sure the right problem is being addressed usually leads to wasted effort. A quality product for the wrong problem is a wasted solution. Worse, teams get excited about a particular solution, bias creeps in, and the team loses sight of the right outcomes. Many different solutions are often explored to ensure that team identifies and understands the problem. 

Defining Outcomes of the Prototype Cycle: 

  1. The correct (often underlying) customer problem is identified 

  1. Minimal effort is used to identify the correct customer problem 

Common Prototype Cycles activities: 

  • Whiteboarding 

  • Sketching 

  • Wireframing 

  • Design prototypes 

  • User surveys, tests & interviews 

2. Test  Cycles 

Primary Question: Are we solving the problem the right way? 

“Teams waste effort when they are anchored to a particular solution too early.” 

Once the correct problem has been identified, then the next challenge is finding the right approach to that problem. Teams waste effort when they are anchored to a particular solution too early. At this stage of maturity, teams should evaluate multiple different approaches to a problem to find the best solution. Teams often repeat the testing cycle until the correct approach is identified. You are more likely to discover the right solution the more possible solutions you can test. 

Defining Outcomes of the Test Cycle: 

  • A quantifiable approach, that addresses a customer problem, is discovered 

  • Minimal effort is used to identify the correct approach to the customer problem 

Common Test Cycles activities: 

  • A/B Split Tests 

  • Fake Door Tests 

  • Live Data Tests 

  • Mechanical Turk Tests 

3. Scale  Cycles 

Primary Question: Are we delivering the solution well? 

“This is when the team really gets to celebrate their efforts  
by revealing and evangelizing a quality solution.“ 

Ideas reach the Scale cycle when the right solution for the right problem is proven. Now the attention turns to making sure the solution is high quality, highly adopted, and well supported by the company. This is when the team really gets to celebrate their efforts by revealing and evangelizing the solution. The idea may go through multiple Scale cycles focusing on different aspects of scale with each cycle. 

Defining Outcomes of the Scale Cycles: 

  • The solution is widely adopted by customers and fully supported by the company 

  • Maximum effort is used to increase engagement and adoption of a solution 

Common Scale Cycles activities: 

  • High Fidelity UX 

  • Scalable Architecture 

  • Robust Services 

  • Operational Alignment 

  • Full Documentation 

How These Cycles  Feel 

Each cycle consists of different experiences for people on the team. Different experiences come with different expectations. Different expectations come with a jungle of emotions! I’ve talked through the concepts and now, let’s change gears and put yourself into team member’s shoes.  

The two parts to emphasize as you are communicating the cycles are complexity and time. I have found these two characteristics are the source of anxiety and expectation misalignment that occurs on a team. 

Diagram, venn diagram

Description automatically generatedEach cycle seeks to minimize each characteristic and minimize the chances of failure and wasted effort. The idea should have less risk of failure as it becomes more mature. Complexity and time are only introduced to an idea as it’s needed. 

“The idea should have less risk of failure as it becomes more mature.” 

Putting Idea Cycles Into Action 

When it’s time to put these cycles into practice, here’s how the conversation should go. Each step is described in question form. 

  1. What problems do we need to solve? 

  1. Which problem do we think is the right problem to solve? 

  1. What ideas would verify we’re solving the right problem? 

  1. Now that we’ve identified the right problem, which idea is the best way to solve it? 

  1. Now that we’ve identified the right solution, what does a high-quality solution look like? 

Here’s what tracking ideas may look like. 


Description automatically generated 

Get Aligned and Go Faster 

Having a shared language to describe the maturity of an idea will unlock a team’s speed and reduce waste. Frankly, I don’t care what you call the cycles. Re-brand it and make it yours. What’s important is that your team spends more team talking about the right things at the right time. Getting aligned this way works! The first step is to start having conversations with your team.