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There’s no such thing as a terrible idea

The first scene of the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun” opens at a book launch party, where a young author named William is toasting his professor — the protagonist, Diane Lane’s Frances Mayes.

“When I took her class at State, I had the worst case of writer’s block in the world. All I had were terrible ideas. I hated them all,” William said. “I was just about to drop the class when she said something to me that changed everything. She said, ‘Terrible ideas are like playground scapegoats. Given the right encouragement, they grow up to be geniuses.’ She told me to take one of my terrible ideas and work on it. Well, I did. To Frances Mayes, who loves terrible ideas!”

The plot unfolds around Mayes’ own terrible idea a year later: buying a rundown villa in Tuscany she can barely afford for the family she doesn’t have.

I watched this movie constantly growing up, but it’s taken me far too long to appreciate the premise that ideas aren’t born great — they require nurturing, experimentation and maturation.

It’s easy to lose sight of this concept. American work culture prizes successes, not progress. We hear about what people do, not what people decide not to do. When your job involves iteration, it can seem like you’re not making a mark.

As a senior product specialist at Poynter, my job is largely about process and iteration. I work across departments to improve user experiences with our products, including newsletters, teaching programs and events. My latest area of focus is a newer space for Poynter: journalism communities. Thousands of journalists train with Poynter each year, forming bonds within their learning cohorts as they grow their confidence, skill sets and capacity. I get to explore opportunities to expand that connection beyond the one-time training experience and serve our alumni in meaningful ways over the long term.

To help me mindfully approach this new opportunity, I applied for the News Product Alliance mentorship program. I was lucky enough to be accepted and paired with Kim Fox, director of product focused on reader experience at Hearst Newspapers. Over the last six months, I’ve benefited from her business acumen, journalism industry insights and empathetic guidance.

Through many conversations, she reminded me about the value of deeply exploring an idea to see how potential customers respond. Instead of “Great idea! Do it,” the advice was, “Great idea! Test it.” She invited wonder, encouraged experimentation and celebrated switching gears when the idea didn’t really, truly solve a problem for a real, truly defined audience.

This approach is product thinking in a nutshell. Product thinking is a way to understand an audience’s problems and then solve them. One of the key benefits of applying product thinking to all aspects of an organization — from programs to products to projects — is that you don’t waste time, money and your reputation on great ideas that don’t actually deliver value.

The NPA mentorship program is structured around helping mentees pursue professional challenges. For me, that was figuring out how to develop a product for one of Poynter’s most engaged alumni groups. Based on initial conversations with individuals in the target audience and evaluating what kinds of products are successful in other industries, I decided a Mastermind-type peer mentorship group would be the perfect solution!

To what problem, specifically? For who, exactly?

The product process requires answering those questions before launching anything. Tools that facilitate discovery include those familiar to journalists, like front-end editing and interviewing, as well as product prototypes, audience research and a business model canvas.

As Fox described it to me, a business model canvas is a few steps above writing a business idea on the back of a napkin and a few steps below a 50-page business plan. In one snapshot, a business model canvas shows the external and internal factors that bring to life a value proposition — and how they all work together. The nine building blocks to identify and map out in the business model canvas are:

  1. Customer segments
  2. Value propositions
  3. Channels
  4. Customer relationships
  5. Revenue streams
  6. Key activities
  7. Key resources
  8. Key partnerships
  9. Cost structure

Screenshot of one of the author’s business model canvases, designed on Google Jamboard with a template from Strategyzer. The left side of the canvas, represented with blue sticky notes, is focused on business/internal factors, and the right side, represented with yellow, is focused on the customer/external factors. (Screenshot/Google Jamboard)

Putting sticky notes in the nine categories, it was easy for me to see where my idea was strong and where it fell short. Even though I have a lot of direct experience with our target audience, I was guessing about key components of the customer segment and the value proposition. The exercise highlighted the assumptions I made when I came up with my “great” idea.

I was still early on in this process, and it was time to design my audience research to dig deeper into these assumptions. Using my business model canvas as a guide for lines of questioning, I created a survey, hosted a focus group, reviewed my prototype with key stakeholders and conducted one-on-one interviews.

Who are these people? What are their problems? What do they really want? What can Poynter realistically provide?

As I answered these questions through audience research, I learned that my original idea had merit, but probably would have failed had I launched it. It was priced too high. It was too much of a time commitment for the customer. And while it addressed a real problem, it wasn’t the most pressing problem we could have used our limited resources to solve. Our customers want to deepen their existing relationships with each other. I could evolve my current idea to prioritize that value proposition — or explore another concept altogether.

So was it a terrible idea or a great idea? I’ve learned it doesn’t actually matter, outside of my own ego. It’s now a tested idea.

It doesn’t have value; it drives value.

People trying to embrace product thinking in their organizations need to slow down and spend time evaluating ideas with actual customers before they act on them. And, crucially, they must learn to quantify the process and its value to their organization so that their contributions are measured by progress over perfection.

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