The Descent to Average


Our Managing Director John Sills asks, "Why do so many great ideas disappear into nothingness?" The dreaded descent to average…


This post was originally published by the Marketforce 20:20 Customer Experience Network


Something needs to change. Your business needs to grow. The competitors have stepped up a notch. You need new ideas, and fast.


So you gather together the brightest minds in the business for a few days of insight, inspiration, and ideation. You speak to customers, visit industry leaders, and fill a room with multi-coloured post-its, full of brilliance that will lead to The Next Big Thing. Before you leave, you pick your favourites, discard the also-rans, and create the concepts that will shape the future of your company.


But almost before the left-over sandwiches have been cleared away and the jeans have turned back into suit trousers, it starts to happen. The descent to average.



The first sign is usually when presenting the ideas to the rest of the senior team. The concepts are acknowledged as great, and certainly what should be being done. They wonder, though, what the ‘quick wins’ could be from some of these, what bits could be accelerated to satiate the short-term thinking that paralyse many organisations.


Next, the business case appears. Sure, it would make customers happier and build the reputation of the business, but does it make enough money? Could we find a way of delivering it slightly cheaper – and maybe with less IT involved? That will help it to land more quickly, too.


Finally, the legal and compliance teams have their say. They’re great ideas, and we’d love to do them if we could. But they’re quite different from what we’ve done before, so how about we tone them down a bit, just to be on the safe side?


What comes out the other side is an idea barely better than what you currently have, an incremental improvement noticeable to only a very few customers, and a demotivating feeling of disappointment for those involved. The feeling spreads as this happens more often, with people no longer believing that the ideas are ever going to lead anywhere, so maybe it’s not worth trying in the first place.


And so average is where you stay.



Of course, all of the above are important. Businesses can’t always be building for the future, and they need new ideas to deliver today as well as tomorrow. The business case needs to stack up, even if by proving that increased customer satisfaction will cause an improved business performance. And in today’s world more than ever, organisations need to be doing things in the right way, keeping themselves and their customers safe.

So how do you protect against this descent to average? Three thoughts come to mind:


1. Don’t stop until you have a plan


Many workshops and ideation sessions stop a step too early. For any new concept, the group should discuss and agree who is going to own this idea, what’s important to the main stakeholders, and crucially, what the first concrete step is to get on the road to delivery.


2. Know your minimum viable product


It’s important to dream big when creating new ideas, but it’s also to be expected that if an idea is going to take a few years to develop, that something will be needed sooner. So designing what that could look like now, next year, and after, helps to highlight the minimum that’s needed to make it worth doing, and create a clear path to get to the game-changing end result. Frank Robinson called this the ‘minimum viable product’, and its equally true for propositions and experiences, too.


3. Conduct a pre-mortem


In his brilliant book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, Daniel Kahneman shares a great strategy for avoiding this descent. The group should imagine that the idea has failed to be delivered, and work backwards to determine all of the possible reasons as to why that could be. That then gives a checklist of actions to work on, pre-empting the concerns or issues before they become real.



Any company and any person can succumb to this descent to appease short-term profit and customer demands (Apple Watch, anyone?). But by accepting it could happen, and planning accordingly, you’ll give yourself a chance of keeping the idea up in the blue sky where it first came from.

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