Not all ideas are worth of your time – assess them all, wisely.

What’s the risk of setting your imagination free in the wild?  Is that new product idea worth of your time?  Say you have an idea for a product or product feature. Should you go for it?

That’s a question I’m constantly faced with, and truth be told, I haven’t completely mastered it yet – although my decision process has evolved over the years. Because I always write down every single new idea I have, and I can’t pursue them all, I’m always asking myself: “how to decide what idea should be at the top of my list?”

the risk of pursuing a product idea

The risk of pursuing a product idea.

These days, I believe that to be successful in deciding what ideas are worth pursuing, one’s state of mind has to be around how to mitigate all the risk associated with the pursuing of such creative bolts. Yes, sometimes not pursuing one idea, is the best idea; Not all of your ideas are worth of your time; And many times, the best ideas turn out to be the result of many doomed ideas.

Here’s a summary of lessons I learned over the years in the form of questions I regularly ask myself. So, when facing a new idea, if you want to try my process, ask yourself this type of questions, which I see being grouped in 3 major risk-assessment categories.

1. The perceived value of the idea:

  • Is this something you believe in?
  • Is this something that people might like?
  • Is this something that people might want to have?
  • Is this something that people might pay for?
  • Is this something that can be used to attract/get customers?
  • Is this something that creates a significant piece of intellectual property?
  • Is this something unique that no one else has done before?
  • Is this something you talked to others about, and the feedback was mostly positive?
  • Is this something you could see yourself using/buying?
  • Is this something that if it wasn’t yours, you’d love to read all about it in a magazine?
  • Is this something for which you already have all the required buy-in?
  • Is this something that someone else is paying you to create?
  • Is this something that will help you accomplish a long term goal?

2. The ability to execute the idea:

  • Is this something you have full and complete understanding of?
  • Is this something you can (financially) afford creating?
  • Is this something you can count on everyone else who need to be involved?
  • Is this something unlikely to break other parts of an existing system?
  • Is this something you can quickly prototype to confirm that it can work as desired?
  • Is this something you have all the tools/dependencies needed to build it?
  • Is this something similar to another idea you successfully delivered before?
  • Is this something you can learn more about if you feel you don’t know enough yet?

3. The amount of time the idea will require:

  • Is this something you can fit in your work schedule?
  • Is this something you can fit around your personal schedule?
  • Is this something that won’t affect your dedication to other professional responsibilities?
  • Is this something that won’t affect your dedication to other personal responsibilities?
  • Is this something you can delegate to another team member, if needed?
  • Is this something whose total project length you can guesstimate early on?
  • Is this something you can see yourself maintaining in the long run?
  • Is this something that won’t seriously damage the progress of other concurrent ideas?
  • Is this something that if put aside for some time, will still be relevant when you get back to it?
  • Is this something whose first version/prototype can be done in a reasonable amount of time?

Of course, the list above is a living organism. It’s always evolving – even during the course of this writing.

Depending on the situation, not all questions are applicable, and different questions might have different weights. In my analyses, I usually put a lot of weight on the time factor because I think time is the most precious non-renewable resource we have, it’s the one reason I never wear a watch as I don’t want to be continuously reminded that time is constantly passing us by. To help manage the time factor risk, when jumping on a new idea, sometimes I give myself an “exploratory” timeframe or an actual deadline to wrap it up (for this post, for example, I gave myself tonight and tonight only). If at the end of that given period, the idea hasn’t developed well enough for my taste, I simply put it back in the idea bucket. You never toss an idea completely away because you never know when your next idea will come by and (just maybe) present itself as a great companion to those rejected ideas that have been long forgotten inside that creativity container of yours.

Very recently, I watched an interview with author and illustrator of children’s books, Mo Willems, and he said: “[…] a mistake that people make is they think ideas are things that you get, like shoes. And they’re not. They’re not shoes. They’re plants. Ideas are things that you grow, and every day you go back, and you take your sketch book, and you’re planting a little seed, and some of them just don’t grow at all. And every now and then, one of those seeds slowly, slowly grows up and becomes a beautiful tree that bares fruit that you can cut down and burn for profit. […]”

Imagination is not something tangible, and the risk of pursuing ideas cannot be easily quantified so I acknowledge that my informal process might have its flaws.  However, if while analyzing an idea, you end up answering “No” too many times to applicable questions like the ones I listed in this post, it’s likely that you have to proceed with some considerable amount of caution, if at all. Nonetheless, simply by going through such checklist in your head, you might be able to quickly figure out whether an idea is a yay or a nay. And if you happen to have many ideas concurrently circling around in your head, this little exercise might offer you a very naive – but efficient – framework to rank them all, while helping you figure out where your attention should go next.

Imagination’s greatest threat is the absence of an inspired and organized mind.

~ André Lessa