High voltage: How to scale your great idea
It appears to truly be a great idea with a company culture fit. The market looks ready. It’s been bought internally to unanimous acclaim. But after an initial positive reception and an enthusiastic start to scaling up, the idea sputters and suffers a fatal voltage drop. How can this be avoided?
When an idea or initiative collapses at scale, where expected results disappoint after major investments have been made, the idea could have been masked by a number of false positives and wrong assumptions. When planning for growth around a new idea, nothing replaces the need for transparency and a willingness to consider all angles.
Why? As Angela Ahrendts recalls of Steve Jobs, “You can never connect the dots looking forward, only when you look back does it all make sense.”
Thankfully, there exist critical ways to catch this early and successfully scale your great idea. A new approach called implementation science is emerging to help.
Changing the world at scale
Why is this important? “When great ideas scale we all win,” according to economist John List. Scaling a strong and beneficial idea is critical, because “you can only change the world at scale.”
How can a company and C-level executives avoid such a costly voltage drop? How can ideas be strategically evaluated for validity, a capacity to really scale?
(“Voltage” here represents the measured outcome of quantified potential, paralleling the dimensional capacity and characteristics of an electric charge. Ideas and decisions possess organizational and market “voltage” – the ability to replicate at scale, as noted by List in his book The Voltage Effect.)
A high voltage idea properly executed – like the Apple iPhone – can foster widespread innovative disruption, profoundly changing behavior and creating new markets.
These issues are important. Why? A TBWA report on CES 2023 noted that real disruptive innovation “seems to be slowing down,” with empirical declines across the global board. With critical challenges appearing at all levels, high voltage ideas that truly scale and are adopted are needed now more than ever.
The good news? There do exist means and frameworks to create, develop and scale great ideas. Critical to success means evaluating whether the idea or initiative possesses enough voltage to drive its scaling capacity up to full power.
The most important step a company or organization can take to help ensure that a great idea will actually work – whether it will actually, grow, scale and drive growth – is to honestly and relentlessly evaluate the idea or initiative before time, energy and investments are poured into it.
Develop a Scaling Culture
While low voltage ideas can make their way into resource-sapping initial implementation, companies can avoid this by developing and championing a culture that promotes transparency, trust and cooperation. Some ideas can get presented in a cage-match culture, which is typically counterproductive. Talented people grow tired of conflict — they can give up, passively acquiesce, or leave.
In a cooperative scaling culture, ideas openly undergo review in a supportive environment. When an idea runs into scaling issues, the development is honestly reviewed without defensive time-wasting. Team members realize that regarding innovation, a weakness in any number of factors dooms an endeavor to failure.
Team members in a scaling culture understand that the spectrum required for lifting up an idea to broad execution essentially reflects a fragile process – everything must work with strong voltage, or the enterprise of implementing the idea can fail. Success lies in not cutting corners and checking egos at the door.
In their book Scaling Leadership, Robert Anderson and William Adams found that the number one differentiator of effective leaders is strong people skills. Cultivating innovation through active listening and empowering team members to weigh in to short-circuit a low voltage idea is critical for scaling success.
The trap of confirmation bias
Here is a critical pitfall to recognize in scaling a new idea: humans are hard-wired with cognitive bias. When I was working on an MBA at Cal State Los Angeles years ago, the dangers of “self-referenced criteria” were drilled into us then-graduate business students. Simply put, self-referenced criteria can be defined as the false assumption that “I like it, therefore everyone likes it.” Small group interaction can mask this bias and produce a “false positive.”
False positives can lead to misinformed decisions, especially when decision makers allow confirmation bias – the slant to reject new, contradictory information – to freeze any consideration of alternatives.
List specifically warns of the “bandwagon effect” of lethal confirmation bias, which can create false positives and a doomed effort to scale a bad idea, one that dramatically suffers a lethal voltage drop when it tries to expand beyond the initial small group.
The “bandwagon effect” occurs when a group abandons efforts to closely examine ideas for validity and a realistic capacity for a successful expansion at scale. The groupthink result essentially guarantees a voltage drop, sub-optimized outcomes, and wasted investment of time, energy, and funding.
This effect can manifest itself in different ways, but here’s how List describes it: “The exact same song and dance play out nearly every time. The leader, who is usually the most passionate, strong-willed person present, tends to talk first and loudest, setting the agenda, dominating the subsequent conversation, and influencing everyone else’s opinions and decisions, either implicitly or explicitly.”
Results from false positives engendered by confirmation bias – where thinking stops and no challenges to the status quo are supported –often results in “social and economic harm but also hijacked funding from programs or ideas that would have been more beneficial.”
Insisting on careful listening, thoughtful questioning, and honest analysis helps avoid this organizational malady.
Five vital signs
Any business or organization engaged in innovation, especially innovation of the disruptive order, should examine any ideas or initiatives for five vital signs as outlined by List:
- The trap of embracing false positives that come from bad or incomplete data. These false positives can mask the capacity of the idea voltage needed to scale
- Exaggerating or overestimating the impact of the idea and what it can really capture. When the idea is put into motion to scale, expensive cracks can occur, leading to eventual collapse
- Not understanding the fact that initial success may have actually been dependent on performance that only works in certain types of small groups and cannot broadly scale (examples include Google Glass, Segway, Microsoft ZUNE, PETS.com, Hoverboards, the Apple Newton, the D.A.R.E. initiative)
- Not fully anticipating what can happen when unintended consequences erupt (appearing as unwanted impacts in other areas) as an idea is implemented and starts to scale
- Failing to consider whether the idea will be too costly – financial, human resources, talent – to sustain at scale. An organization cannot scale an individual human being
Be courageous in a high-voltage scaling culture
Creating and fashioning new ideas that scale and change the world is exciting stuff. Recognizing the pitfalls that can mask a possible voltage drop rank high in a high-impact scaling culture.
Having real and open dialogue as ideas formulate and emerge is critical. Don’t overthink, but promote success by gathering and analyzing critical data that can guide and steer the ideation. Humility in allowing the introduction and evaluation of contradictory ideas helps safeguard against cognitive bias that will sap potential voltage. Considering challenging information may require significant mental effort, but it is the price of real high voltage success.
It is also certainly possible to re-engineer ideas in the process of scaling or implementation, based on the constant refining and adapting as described.
Want to change the world? Now’s the time!
Michael Snyder is managing principal at MEK.