Sometimes creating brilliant new ideas is easy. It's trying to convince other people of the brilliance of an idea that's difficult. There's your 99% right there. And the worst part of it is that many times we're on the other end of the 99%.

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"Get that toy out of my office!" — An irate banker telling Thomas Edison to take his invention, the phonograph, someplace else.

A crazy idea called "xerography" How many documents did you touch today that have been photocopied? In business today the photocopier is a business necessity, and it's been a staple of the business world for several decades now. However, in the late 30s, Chester Carlson tried to sell his idea of "xerography" to the big technology companies like IBM and Kodak. They rejected his idea.

But you know how the story ends. After $75 million dollars in research, in 1960 a little known company called Haloid-Xerox (now Xerox) unveiled the first $29,500 Xerox copier with a $95/month lease that included 2,000 free copies (four cents for each additional copy), plus guaranteed maintenance of the temperamental copiers. It was an overnight success 25 years in the making.

"Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration." — Thomas Edison

A home-run hit that everyone believed in during development? No, not even the development group believed in it. "Various members of our own group would come in and tell me that the damn thing would never work," said John Dessauer, head of the Haloid-Xerox R&D division. Such a limited amount of faith for a product that would eventually become a business staple and turn into a $15 billion business for the company. So what can we learn? Just this: don't kill new ideas before you fairly consider them.

How to judge ideas affirmatively

One way to do that is by using a technique called the PPCO. The PPCO is a technique that looks at each idea strategically, affirmatively, and deliberately by assessing the following:

  • Pluses: What are (at least) three things you like about the idea?
  • Potentials: What are (at least) three good things that might result if the idea were implemented?
  • Concerns: What are some concerns you have about the idea (phrased as a question starting with "How to..." or "How might...")
  • Overcome the concerns: What are some ideas you have for how to fix the concerns you just noted?

Imagine you were in charge of doling out venture capital in the late 30s and some garage-engineer-crackpot named Carlson approached you with his pioneer technology to replace the mimeograph machine. You might use the PPCO this way:

  • Pluses: It's unique. I've never seen anything like it before. And it seems like it would be much cleaner that the mimeograph machine with all that carbon paper and ink. Also, I like that you've proven that the concept does work.

  • Potentials: It might be the first product like it on the market, and we'll gain huge market share. And it might lead to a whole new profit center for your company. It might also be possible to expand this worldwide and pay off the development costs even faster.

  • Concerns: How to get your employees to have a stake in the development of this extremely complex technology. And how might you create awareness of your new idea so that people can see how revolutionary it is. Also, it looks like it might be expensive, so how might you price it in a way that businesses can afford one of your copiers?

  • Overcome the concerns: As you know, the first and third concerns were overcome with stock options and leasing respectively. To address the second concern and create awareness of the idea, Xerox used innovative promotional strategies including doing demonstrations of the machine in New York's Grand Central Terminal.

What do new ideas look like?

New ideas look strange. They seem impractical. They make us feel uncomfortable, and they change the status quo. But they also unleash $15 billion dollar industries. And the way to make sure that we're part of that success is to avoid prematurely killing ideas and instead judge them fairly and deliberately. With the PPCO. •

Next: To Solve the Problem Ask the Right Question

©2004 Jonathan Vehar. All rights reserved.