Finding the nugget of an idea that makes all the difference

I’m not a fan of pros and cons lists. The unspoken assumption is that if we just list everything good or bad about an idea, then one half of the list will likely outweigh the other. Such a binary approach gives little room to explore the gray area, and doesn’t offer any insight into what opportunities are waiting to be mined.

The Evaluation Matrix brings a deliberate approach to assessing which ideas have potential and which should come off the short list. The goal is straightforward: evaluate a series of ideas against the known variables that will help or hinder its potential for implementation. Let’s take a closer look at how we fill out this matrix.

Once you have completed a brainstorming session, select the top handful of ideas that really stand out. Give special attention to those that have a certain sparkle or pop, or really seem to “fit” the problem space. Enter each idea on its own row in the matrix.

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Next, assemble a list of options common to every idea, and enter them as column headings. Borrowing from the Issues step in POINt, ideate on ways we tend to critique new ideas: some examples are cost, impact, feasibility, ROI, likelihood of a quick win. Make sure every option you select is stated in a positive manner. Add at least three critieria to ensure a multi-dimensional evaluation. The more discrete the criteria you have, the more granular your assessment will be.

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Come up with a scale for assessing an idea against an option (1,2,3; High/Medium/Low). Color coding is highly effective in visually representing an idea.

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Then begin evaluating the first idea. Assess the idea’s entire row of critieria, one at a time. Then repeat with each successive idea until the entire matrix is filled in. There is no need to overthink the assessment – much like Planning Poker in Agile story sizing, the assessment serves to open up a conversation about why this option is a positive or negative attribute of an idea. So keep going!
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After assessing your ideas, take a closer look at where each one stacks up and where it falls short. If an idea is mostly red/low, they can probably be set aside. If it is mostly green/high and yellow/medium, it likely has merit to prioritize. If there are red/low items but the idea otherwise looks promising, target the weaker spots in its assessment. What is it about this idea that makes this one criteria a pain point? How might it be addressed? If this idea has merit, conduct a targeted brainstorming session on how to improve this aspect of the idea. If the concern is cost, some possible challenges are:

  • What might make this solution more cost-efficient?
  • How might we partner with <insert stakeholder> to help fund this solution?
  • What if we first conducted a proof of concept?

Once you generate ideas for how to strengthen the weak points of a solution, you can optionally add it as a new row in the matrix or prioritize it as a prerequisite for prioritizing the original idea. Occasionally you may even find new criteria arise out of scrutinizing an option. Don’t be afraid to add it as a new criterion in your matrix for further refinement.

Immediate takeaways for any team

Evaluation Matrix is a flexible tool – you can create it on a whiteboard, in a spreadsheet, as an online Mural, or even a Trello board. It’s also a flexible process; your team almost always knows which critieria are deal breakers and which need more focus. As mentioned earlier, the goal of the Evaluation Matrix is to strengthen alternatives by objectively assessing them against a known set of options. The ideas to capitalize on are the ones that have the greatest likelihood of implementation.

How to take an idea from good to great

What most people don’t realize about evaluating ideas is that we do it far more frequently during informal discussions than we do in a structured setting. That means we are much more likely to have a new idea presented to us without any warning. In those moments, POINt (also called “Praise First”) is an ideal evaluation tool that is uniquely suited to having a creative conversation.

The real power of POINt lies in its ability to affirm the person pitching an idea by affirming the idea itself. Let’s peel back the layers and see how easy it is to turn an impromptu proposal into a creative thinking opportunity.

When someone comes forward to share a new idea, our typical response is to skip over what we like about it – the positives – in favor of critiquing what is missing. Just like in a brainstorming session, the key to an effective response in this moment is to defer judgment just long enough to assess an idea’s actual merits.

“Here’s what I like about …” or “Yes, and …” is a very effective way to respond to someone asking for your input on their novel thought. Even in the unlikely event the idea really isn’t novel, you’ve just been given a chance to build rapport with a colleague. Instead of turning something down that may have value, why not acknowledge and explore what the idea (and the person behind it) has to offer?

Spending some time considering why a new idea has value can and should give way to assessing the opportunity it promises. If you’re willing to look at a proposal with an eye toward value, it should “automagically” open you to your own creative thought. What potential might be here? Where might this thought progression lead? This is where your own creative energy can kick in, and lead to an even better potential breakthrough. Phrases like “wouldn’t it be great if …” and “how might we …” are great statement starters to open a new round of brainstorming and refining an idea into a potential solution.

By now you’re probably thinking, “when do I get to critique?”. This is the time! Once you have given some positive thought to an idea, then built on its potential, it’s time to look at the issues which might block your creative efforts. Who is likely to support or resist your proposal? What shortcomings or oversights could kill your idea in its tracks? What factors affecting the outcome of your ad hoc creative collaboration need to be addressed? This is the time to surface those concerns so you can address them.

Once you know what barriers to success might be in front of you, you’re ready to look at some New thinking. This is the moment your collective energy can bring insight into overcoming issues. What are some ways to engage stakeholders who might be for or against the idea? How might you overcome the issues you identified? While you always want to look for novel approaches, the new thinking here should also be specific.

Immediate takeways for any team

The ultimate goal of using POINt to have a creative conversation is that you build trust and collaborative momentum with a team member. The happy byproduct is that you come away with a new or improved direction for implementing something special.