How to Avoid Ending Up in the "Did Not Finish" Pile

It’s not unusual to assume that something is easy to understand simply because it’s a good idea. Sadly, that’s not the case, and there are plenty of examples to illustrate the point. A famous one is Kodak and the advent of the digital camera. Everyone has heard the story. Steve Sasson, a Kodak engineer, actually invented the first digital camera back in 1975, long before anyone else was seriously looking at the technology.

According to Sasson, when he presented his idea, Kodak leadership called it “cute” then killed it because it was filmless photography. It didn’t fit the existing model. It was too disruptive. As most mentions of the story have it, the leaders of Kodak failed to innovate. They missed the big idea, and it cost them their company. But was the fault entirely theirs? If Sasson found a better way to communicate and help them understand the opportunity, could there have been a different outcome?


Communicating Isn’t Always (or Ever) Easy

While your idea might seem crystal clear in your own mind, there’s a good chance that other people may not see it that way. Ideas with underdeveloped or overdeveloped value propositions and core messages are at risk of being poorly communicated and subject to dilution, misunderstanding, or contextual inaccuracies before they even get a chance to make the leap from development to adoption. The result: According to Fahrenheit 212’s Mark Payne, almost 90% of ideas for groundbreaking new products or services turn into marketplace flops or never see the light of day.

One of the greatest difficulties inventors, developers, and innovators face is establishing and preserving the full value and integrity of their idea as it’s communicated across internal and external value chains. And when you consider the diversity of audiences that an idea must pass through—with their varied backgrounds, pain points, and priorities—an almost 90% failure rate isn’t that surprising.

The role of strategic communication in advancing any idea is as critical as your technology roadmap or development process (in fact, it should inform them). You only have one opportunity to make a first impression, so to help you along the way, we’ve put together seven key considerations to keep in mind.

1. Clearly Define Your Idea’s Unique Value Proposition

A clear understanding of your idea and the value it offers is essential, so it’s important to accurately articulate your idea. If you focus on the core elements and points of differentiation that make up its value, inspire meaning, and generate the most impact, you’ll establish the foundation you need to build on across every audience you’ll meet along your journey.

A well-defined idea should be understood no matter your audience’s education level, department, or seniority. If other engineers, inventors, or designers are the only people who grasp the gravitas of your idea, you haven’t found the proper way to explain it yet. In addition to the technical details that make your idea exciting in your mind, you must look beyond and find the core values and benefits that will connect on a more common level.

Clearly defining your idea is especially important in collaborative environments, when there are several disciplines and outside partners with different vocabularies, needs, and priorities all working together to breathe life into the finished product, service, or platform.

2. Establish the Potential for Strategic Impact

With a strong foundation in place, it’s time to expand your thinking. Where does your idea fit within your organizational strategy? What is the potential for impact? Does your idea skew more toward a sustaining innovation? Or does it have potential as a breakthrough or disruptive opportunity? For many stakeholders, the impact may be more important than the actual idea itself.

A simple way to look at potential for impact is by thinking about a series of widening circles. At the center, how will your idea first impact your organization? As you widen the aperture, how will your idea then impact your customers and partners? Your industry? Adjacent industries? Society at large? The planet and beyond?

By establishing how your idea strategically fits into a larger schema and impacts an existing or future roadmap, you exponentially increase the odds that your idea will connect with stakeholders and find greater support on its journey.

3. Understand Your Key Audiences

Once you have the basic story and potential for impact defined, it’s time to firm up the list of people you’ll need to present your idea to along the journey toward adoption. Different internal and external stakeholders will be looking for different information presented in terms they understand, so you want to make certain that you understand their needs and pain points and that you speak their language well enough to establish trust and convince them to support your efforts.

You can start by establishing baseline personas. Who are the key stakeholders you need to talk to in order to move your idea forward? How do you prioritize them? Who is most likely to champion your cause? What are their specific needs? What is their level of understanding, and how do they prefer to communicate? These are just a few of the questions you want to answer.

4. Beware the Curse of Knowledge

You may be familiar with this term if you’ve read Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath. The Curse of Knowledge is a cognitive bias that causes a subject matter expert to fail to account for the fact that others don’t know the same things that he or she does. In other words, you may know a good deal more than others on a given subject, which may cause you to unconsciously assume that people will have some level of understanding on the subject too—even when they don’t.

In general, this bias is most commonly associated with education, which is essential when introducing your idea. Often, the expert sees his or her audience’s lack of understanding as a lack of information, and responds by adding even more detail into the mix, causing greater confusion.

The better response when you’re faced with an audience that doesn’t understand is to go the opposite direction and see if you can find a way to simplify things. Once you establish a clear foundation, you can then add more information and, like a good teacher, guide your audiences on the path to understanding.

5. Data Alone Doesn’t Tell a Story

Data, statistics, and market research matter, but only as input to help support your idea. The data should never be the story itself. Unfortunately, there is often a temptation to manipulate and use data as a central output to actually tell your story. This is dangerous because most often data is relative and can paint a picture that makes your idea more (or less) than it actually is. And if you get caught providing a less than honest picture of what your idea is or can be, you erode trust and unnecessarily open up a potential path to failure.


6. Find Your Champions

As you define your audiences and map out their personas, you need to find a champion – or champions, if possible. These are the influencers who can effectively articulate, validate, and fight for your idea with the various audiences you’ll encounter on your path. Your champions can be internal or external, but the key attributes they must all have in common are understanding, reach, and influence. They should be able to help you get connected with the technical, business, and promotional resources and decision makers necessary for success. And most importantly, they must have the heft to help move your idea forward, especially when you run into the inevitable roadblocks you’ll face along the way.


7. Above All, Put Your Ideas Through the Wringer

Good ideas aren’t precious stones to be polished. By their nature, they start out rough and full of potential. They’re resilient and made to be put through the paces. They serve as foundations to expand on and become more valuable as they grow. And this is necessary and good, because exposing ideas to continual waves of questions and scrutiny ensures that they can survive in a fast-paced world where companies and investors are contributing real resources and expecting real returns. If they prove to be less than you hoped for, you can pivot with confidence and fail forward, hopefully toward your next success. Clarity is the catalyst that makes it all possible, but you can’t find clarity without a strong foundation built on a solid communication strategy.

Again, it’s easy to assume that something is simple to understand just because it’s a good idea, but don’t let your idea become another statistic or unfortunate case study. Your communication strategy needs to be planned, developed, and fine-tuned in parallel with your idea from the moment of conception, through adoption, and beyond. Doing so will provide you with the foundation you need to establish and preserve the full value and integrity of your idea as it makes its way from ideation through to it its full potential.

And in the end, you can’t help but wonder that if Steve Sasson had communicated his big idea differently, perhaps leadership at Kodak would have seen it for the opportunity it was, and maybe they’d all be looking at life through a much different lens.