The Ideation Switch

(This is a guest post by Lukas Fittl — a fellow Lean practitioner and Spark59er.)



Imagine the following situation: You are in the office working on the next release of your software product. Suddenly your co-founder storms in and starts talking about the excellent new idea he just had.

You end up in a long discussion about the company's future, only to resume work on the old release. You feel exhausted, not motivated, and are happy when you finally leave the office.

That story is a symptom of a larger problem — we question what we are doing while we are doing it. In my own experience, this has led to a lot of time wasted, motivation issues, and the company running out of money because we kept the same strategy over the years (even though we knew better).

Our inability to decide on executing one specific strategy resulted in procrastination, doing irrelevant work, or just having endless brainstorming meetings without ever taking action. I’ve come to believe that to achieve flow in a startup and get the business going, you need to keep the time your team spends on alternative directions to a minimum.

That means either focus on one direction and execute or discuss alternatives and make a decision as fast as possible. This difference is best described as The Ideation Switch — making a conscious decision between Ideation and Execution:

ideation switch

Ideation fundamentally differs from Execution — we should choose our goals and work processes accordingly.

Ideation is about finding (any) interesting signals in chaos, close to customers and the market. During this time, you’d run customer interviews and usability tests, investigate different business models and even look at what the competition is doing.

During Execution, you have a clear goal of what you want to achieve — and work obsessively towards it, ideally without much distraction. In the Lean Startup sense, this is where Build-Measure-Learn happens and where you test your hypothesis and run experiments.

You have assumptions both during Ideation and Execution. Still, they are tested quite loosely and rapidly in Ideation (a couple of interviews can invalidate a strategy) versus being tested thoroughly in Execution based on customer data or previous experience.

Now, the biggest risk we have as a startup is if we spend too much time on either of these without giving room to the other.

When to Execute & When to Ideate

If we spend too much time Ideating, we end up in analysis paralysis, never focusing on one idea and one strategy to actually do it.

If we spend too much time Executing, we end up in local maxima, with modest growth and little potential for actual innovation. We also run a risk of building something no customer wants — them saying “nice product” but not enough actually engaging and using it.

We, therefore, need to reduce scope by putting both Ideation and Execution into a timebox. This could mean we spend two weeks on Ideation through customer interviews, then three weeks on Execution and actually building an MVP.

ideation switch

Examples of this: Product Design Sprint @ Google Ventures,, etc

How to Structure Ideation

Ideation consists of two parts: Collecting new data from actual customers by “getting out of the building” and then analyzing that data to gain insights and zoom into one direction to pursue. For collecting new data, you intentionally want to open your worldview to diverging, new perspectives — something that is easiest in the beginning but gets much harder for established businesses.

You can structure Ideation into three main stages:

  • Opening: Broaden your perspective & worldview and allow diverging perspectives from different team members
  • Explore: Understand both your team’s understanding of the customer and the actual customer’s needs
  • Close: Converge on a specific insight and agree on what to focus on for your next Execution phase

You might recognize these from the book Gamestorming or the similarities with the Design Thinking process.

Tools & Techniques for Ideation

  • Customer Interviews: Setup a 30-minute interview session with an actual customer and determine what their job-to-be-done is (look for frustration with the status quo & other strong reactions) and whether they are actively looking for a better solution
  • Business Modeling: Model the essential aspects of your business on the Business Model Canvas, and explore alternatives by just leaving one of the post-its on the canvas. Use with a timer (e.g., 15min) and quick iterations.
  • Card Sorting: Have your user's sort index cards (e.g., navigation items of your website, feature ideas, etc.) into categories. This helps you understand in which groups/patterns they think
  • Personas: Summary of who your user is and what their goals are.
  • Design Studio: Collaboration tool to evaluate ideas and prototypes as a group
  • Many others: Rapid Prototyping, KJ technique, Mental Models, Customer Journey Maps, empathy maps, behavioral variables & many more in the 500startups Lean UX Bootcamp slides

If you’d like to learn in more detail how design techniques can be applied to startups, take a look at this Case Study by Mike Krieger from Instagram:

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Watch live streaming video from 500startups at

- Mike Krieger @ Warmgun Conference 2012, Talk starts at 22:00

Stop Wasting Your Time

I’ve seen too many companies that still had 6+ months runway burst up in flames because they didn’t actually try any of the options at their disposal but rather ended up in endless brainstorming meetings and working on things they didn’t believe in anymore.

This explicit separation and the tools introduced above have helped me avoid that state and move towards a working business faster. To reiterate, do not Ideate and Execute at the same time. It only leads to indecision and procrastination.

Get started today by:

  • Understand what you are trying to do: If you are doing customer development right now, focus on just that, and do it in the next two weeks instead of 2 months
  • Don’t share new exciting ideas 24/7 with the team: We love to do it, but this can be confusing for the team members, especially when you have a misunderstanding between business/marketing and tech
  • Set a specific time for Ideation: Start with timeboxing your teams' divergent thoughts into a 2–3 hour meeting, expand this over time into 1–2 days and include actual customers into the process
  • Be conscious of why you are (un)productive: If we put the wrong constraints & goals into place, we’ll procrastinate. Try to reflect on your productivity and understand the root cause, don’t try to beat it with sheer willpower.

I’d love to hear about your experience — share your thoughts & comments on Twitter.

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