How Thought Leaders Get Feedback on Their Ideas

At the early stages of testing a new idea, you are not necessarily looking for people who will help you with implementation (although if you do find some who are ready to help, don’t turn them away). Instead you need people who can validate, add to, modify, confirm, build on, or align with any efforts you might have under way. Your goal is to systematically build enough momentum around one small idea so that it becomes a big idea worth moving forward. How do you do this? Here are four ideas:

Explore the Adjacent Possible

Take a lesson from the world of innovation. In his book Where Good Ideas Come From, popular science writer Steven Johnson describes what he calls the “adjacent possible”—a possible shadow future that is just beyond our reach. Johnson contends that there are many different ways the world may unfold or reinvent itself, but the space of reinvention is not infinite—only certain things can happen.

He says, “Think of [the future] as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Those four rooms are the adjacent possible. But once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point. Keep opening new doors and eventually you’ll have built a palace.”

When you are starting out, look at each person around you as someone who can open one of those doors to an adjacent possible. People love to give advice, to share their expertise and to tell you whether you’re headed in the right direction. By saying, “I’m testing out a new idea, I’d love to get your thoughts,” you can ask for 15 minutes from almost anyone, I’ve found.

Look for a diversity of opinion – seek out input from women and men, experienced sages and start-up newbies, potential customers, investors, vendors, service providers and colleagues past and present. Look beyond your industry – discuss your ideas with those outside your existing organization, job title or even region of the country. You’re looking for fresh perspectives and alternative approaches.


But take a little advice here from Sara Blakely, Founder of SPANX (who turned five thousand dollars into a billion dollar undergarment company): please don’t look for validation for your ideas exclusively from a family member or a really close friend. They are often too protective and may discourage you from taking a risk in case it doesn’t work out and they are left to pick up the pieces.

If you don’t get initial support at home, don’t be deterred.

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Use Participatory Design

What if you were to actively involve multiple potential stakeholders (employees, partners, customers, citizens, end users) in your design process? When author and social entrepreneur Miki Agrawal began to explore starting a healthy pizza restaurant at the age of twenty-five, she had no industry experience, but she did have a wide and varied network. She convened about twenty people she knew, including bankers, interior designers, and an architect, for dinner and brainstorming, and in a few hours they put together her menu and came up with a clever name, Slice Perfect, for her first restaurant.

The many other ideas they developed that night ensured that her New York City restaurant (later renamed Wild) rose above the rest. She told me that it was the variety of contradictory opinions that gave her the confidence that she would meet the expectations of the widest possible audience.

At Taco Bell, they use a similar strategy. Chief food innovation officer, Liz Matthews, advocates for “getting different people together, having food around, and having conversations.” On a regular basis, 15 people gather for an event known as Creationeers, where outside consultants are invited to cook up their visions for Taco Bell’s future. Participants try out the innovations real-time and run with those that seem promising.

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Look for the Naysayers

It may seem counterintuitive, but in addition to those who can confirm your idea, many times the best people to talk with are not exclusively those who have a vested interest in your success. You also want to hear from those who would prefer that you don’t succeed.

Yes, I’m serious.

When you face the challengers, the naysayers, the Eeyores (those who never think anything good will possibly happen), you will gain a crucial understanding of what you might be up against.

It’s not possible (most of the time) to bring everyone on board with a new idea immediately. Overlooking those who stand in your way or are averse to your ideas means you won’t know all of the objections you may need to overcome. Hear from the naysayers early because they can lead you in a new direction and help frame which path you take.

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Pretotype and Prototype

Often what is most challenging in trying to engage people with your ideas is getting them to “see” the future as you do. In the technology arena, two concepts have helped product teams gain the necessary feedback before making a large investment: pretotyping and prototyping.

You are probably familiar with prototyping—creating a working model of a proposed product quickly and inexpensively, to find out if there is a market need. A “pretotype” is the step before the prototype.

When Jeff Hawkins was developing the Palm Pilot—the first successful personal digital assistant—the story goes that he began by cutting out a block of wood and adding a piece of paper on one side that delineated the possible placement of the screen and the buttons. He walked around for months carrying this mock-up in his pocket, pulling it out experimentally to determine whether he would actually use a device like this, and iterating it until he had the feel exactly right.

This block of wood was his pretotype and gave him all the feedback he needed to make certain that when the first prototype was actually built it would not be a waste of money.

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Would a video animation, using a tool like Videoscribe or PowToon, help others understand what you’ve imagined?

These are four techniques to get you started. You’ll find more in my book, Ready to Be a Thought Leader?. Take a moment and share your own idea-shaping techniques below. And feel free to forward this article to someone you know who is building momentum around a new idea. They will appreciate your support.

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