Critical Doer Deep Dive: Concept Conception

Where does it all begin?  It’s the question mankind has grappled with on every subject imaginable since the dawn of time.  We often ponder the same question about ideas and how they are transformed into action.  As much as some would like you to believe otherwise, ideas that become accomplishments are not a matter of DNA that determines from conception whether or not you possess the capacity to think and do.  Most ideas that become tangible follow a process that is describable, understandable, and repeatable. Let’s take a look together at the process of concept conception…where great achievement begins.

The graphic I’m about to show you is not original work on my part.  The framework has been around for a while and has a number of different names.  I’m going to refer to it as the “Design V.”  This way of thinking can be helpful to you because one of the greatest challenges of innovation is being able to communicate with others and even fully understand yourself the ideas ruminating in your brain.  Follow this process and you can turn inspiration to communication and communication to action.



Step 1:  Concept.  I’ve used Albert Einstein’s quote before that “if I had one hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I’d spend the first 55 minutes figuring out what the problem is and the next 5 minutes solving because if I understand the problem I can solve it.”  You must have the patience to think, rethink, and re-rethink through your concept to understand your “why.”  If you don’t, you’ll inevitably end up with a solution looking for a problem rather than a real solution to the real problem.  The concept definition phase is where you should spend the greatest amount of time in this process; if once defined, you will gain the time back in velocity and work with greater clarity in steps 2-5.

The concept, at the heart of it, addresses “why.”  A good concept clearly and succinctly communicates the underlying reason for your idea.  For example, your concept could be “freedom through access to knowledge” if you were designing a search engine or some other knowledge application.  If you’re trying to solve a defined problem, the concept phase is where the skill you’ve learned as a Critical Doer, in asking the perfect questions, will serve you well.

About a year ago, I was part of a team asked to provide options for a problem of strategic nature.  The problem came to the team in the form of a concept with the expectation of validating or refuting that concept.  The problem was…the concept in and of itself didn’t define the problem.  It was a way…one way…of dealing with the problem but it didn’t articulate the real problem.  The team deduced the real problem and more openly restated the problem in terms of “what is the best way” which opened up possibilities beyond the single solution offered in the original question.  We determined the original concept was valid…but not the best solution.  Had we not spent an inordinate amount of time asking the right question, we would not have produced the best answer.

The lesson from this story can be articulated as follows:  if your concept is a solution or a question that asks you to validate or refute a single solution, you have an ill-defined concept that will likely fall short of expectations.  If your concept is a statement or idea that points to “why” rather than “how” or “what” you are likely on track with a concept that leads to success.

Step 2:  Requirement.  If the concept phase answers “why”, the requirement phase of design answers “how.”  One way to define a requirement is through a set of capabilities.  Let’s revisit the knowledge application concept we talked about in the previous section.  To achieve freedom through access to knowledge, you may want capabilities like (1) portability (2) no or low cost (3) intuitive, no training required (4) interoperable with known web or open database architectures.  In this set of capabilities, you’re defining both the customer and the features a product must have to reach those customers and fulfill the promise of the concept.

Another way to communicate a requirement is through lines of effort.  Take a look at this graphic from an article in the Georgetown University Security Studies Review:




This graphic uses the term “lines of effort.”  Lines of effort can be existing capabilities or they can be capabilities defined by function (for example, General Electric has lines of effort in manufacturing, finance, communications, etc.).  In this case, the lines of operation are “shaping” (line of effort 1), controlling (line of effort 2), and reacting (line of effort 3).  The lines of effort exploit the element of time from long term preventive/shaping actions to near term tactical/reactive actions.  Many of the same people and assets are in play across the lines of effort; likewise, you should not limit use of all the weapons at your disposal when shaping the requirement.

In the requirement phase, this is also the perfect opportunity to identify capabilities you don’t have in order to deliver upon the promise of the concept.  You may need to hire new talent, retrain personnel, make a capital investment in infrastructure or address some other need as you take the requirement into the design phase.

Step 3:  Design.  In the concept phase we addressed why…in the requirement phase we addressed how…in the design phase, we address “what.”  In design, you are coming up with a physical product with required capabilities to deliver upon a promise.

There is still plenty of opportunity for creativity in the design phase (and it’s worth reiterating that there is never a place lacking an opportunity for creativity).  Appearance, features, functionality, ergonomics, ease of maintenance, materials, sales/marketing, and the list goes on and on for factors to consider as the conceptual transforms to the physical.

In terms of communication, refer back to the very first Critical Doer Deep Dive about where innovation comes from.  The takeaway was that in general, true game-changing innovation comes from the fringes while organizational progress comes from the consensus of the masses.  In the design phase, you get a golden opportunity to not only bring an idea to life but to bring an organization to life as a concept becomes tangible enough to understand.  In your leadership obligation of building on-ramps for innovation to come into the mainstream, this is where you begin the heavy lifting that unites all quadrants of your organization.

Step 4:  Build.  The build phase becomes more mechanical…the more mundane tasks of driving rivets or composing lines of code become the focus.  In the build phase, you should begin to reap the reward from investment of thought in defining the problem and identifying capability gaps.

Communication is still a premium in the build phase because anyone who ever built anything knows there are inevitable gaps in transforming a plan into something practical.  Organizations that are built upon strong relationships will communicate freely in this phase to address the practical problems of implementing design and press ahead with solutions.

Step 5:  Test and deploy.  After a product or idea is built, it needs to be tested to ensure it works.  Internal testing is good as it provides quick feedback to address the obvious deficiencies.  I would also suggest testing with focus groups or any group that was not involves in bringing the product to life because of the one special attribute they can provide…objectivity.

Internal testing will give you an idea of your beauty based upon your own reflection in the mirror.  External testing is a vital link in determining not only does the product work from a functional perspective, it can also provide the answer as to whether the product worked to address the promise of the original concept.  Remember, a saw is a horrible tool if you’re trying to drive a nail…it’s a beautiful tool if you want to cut a board.  Purpose, back to the original concept, is the arbiter of whether your product or idea is effective.

With the product or service out in the market place, your work is not done.  Analysis is a critical step to ensure the final product captured the intent of the concept.  Analysis also provides insight about how a great concept can be even greater or even provide insight on a new opportunity that warrants concept development.  Linking analysis back to the concept closes the loop on critical thinking and results in strategic decision making with greater velocity.  As we’ll learn in next month’s deep dive, the ability to think and act faster than competitors is what truly gives a lasting advantage in any enterprise from manufacturing, to academia, to national defense.

Your challenge, Critical Doers, is to think about an idea you’ve been mulling over for a while but you’re just now sure to get started with the conception of a concept.  Here’s a framework to help guide you through the creative process.  It’s a descriptive path to letting innovation flow and provides an intellectual avenue you can wrap your brain around to get started.  Remember, time spent determining the real problem or opportunity up front is the key…when you’ve done that, all things are possible.  Turn your idea into innovation…starting today; it’s what a Critical Doer would…do!


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Updated: May 4, 2015 — 9:22 am

1 Comment

  1. One of my old bosses used to frustrate me to no end. We would get an assignment to complete. Well, being young and full of salt, my reaction was to grab our equipment and head out the door. But my boss would say, “Hold on.” “Lets think about this a minute”. (Problem was, his “minute” might be hours or days). Steve would think about the assignment from every possible facet, determine the best way to proceed, and collect any additional data that he could foresee us possibly needing. It wasn’t until the end of our entire project that I saw the wisdom and reason and usefulness of Steves “minute” to “understand the problem”. I experienced several, “Oh, THAT’S why you wanted it done a certain way” moments when it became clear that his “minute” has saved us a lot of time and energy in the long run. Thanks Steve!

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