Why the Best Ideas in the World Come From Idea Stacking

1024 576 David DeWolf

As I wrote about in a recent post, the list of massively successful companies that started as something wholly different than what they’ve become include Slack (acquired by Salesforce for $27.7 billion; 12 million daily active users), Instagram (acquired by Facebook for $1 billion with 500 million daily active users), and Twitter ($51.6 billion market cap as of this writing and 206 million daily active users). 

The moral of the story? It’s more important to be nimble, agile, and well-equipped to harness change than it is to have the “right” idea for anything when you’re just getting started with it.

Rarely, if ever, does an idea come along that is so brilliant and fully formed that there’s no change between the original thought and what it eventually comes to be. Far more often, the germ of an idea leads to a series of ideas that improve or build upon the original. I call this “idea stacking,” and it’s a tool I’ve used throughout my career to unlock growth opportunities.  

Here are a few ways you can take what are arguably your company’s most valuable commodity — the ideas of your team — and turn them into competitive advantage by idea stacking.  

Hone Your Mindset  

Reframing or refocusing what your team thinks about is one of the fastest paths to successful idea stacking. A great example of this was former Alcoa CEO Paul O’Neill’s singular focus on worker safety. Early in his tenure, his announcement at a board meeting that Alcoa would focus strictly on worker safety received a famously chilly, bewildered reception.

That focus, however, spawned improvements throughout the company that greatly increased Alcoa’s profitability. When O’Neill exited the company after 12 years, Alcoa’s market value had gone from $3 billion to nearly $28 billion. Giving everyone on your team a single lens through which to view the world (or your business) can make a massive impact on the relevance and quality of ideas you and your team come up with, giving you a good baseline from which to start.  

Pressure Test Ideas Before Launch

Whenever I’m mulling big ideas, I lean heavily on 3Pillar’s executive team and board. I have also collected a myriad of friends and advisors. We openly share input, exchange and build on one another’s ideas, and discuss what different futures could look like. Having sounding boards that can help you see ideas from a variety of angles, plus contribute their own ideas on how to address a pain point, helps get to a better end result. 

Everyone in the world is limited by the boundaries of his or her own experience. While I consider myself fairly financially literate, I don’t have near the depth in corporate finance that our CFO, John Bernardi, does. Likewise, when it comes to M&A, I’ve gone through several acquisitions. One of our key investors, Mike Grady, acquires companies for a living. When we’re sharing ideas about a potential new company to acquire, John and Mike always have invaluable advice. They can frequently piggyback off a not-quite-fully-baked idea I may have and shape it into something worthwhile. A group of trusted advisors that can draw from their own diverse backgrounds is so crucial to making sure you’re avoiding any blind spots that could come back to haunt you.  

A parallel from the product world would be testing ideas using tools like prototypes that can help you get a sense of how users might react to a product or set of features.  

Keep Narrowing Focus

As you stack ideas, ensure each idea adds even further focus to the original. Focus is the discipline of saying no. Each layer of your idea stack should further clarify your value proposition. Think of each layer of your idea stack as a building block on a pyramid. Each layer should provide a sharper and sharper focus. 

3Pillar’s initial strategy was to be an expert in agile software development. Quickly we learned that our true differentiation was building one specific niche of software — digital product. This has been the base of our pyramid for over a dozen years. From there, we began to stack ideas. We built a full service capability. We began to specialize in building digital products that commercialize information assets. Each layer of our strategy became more and more defining and differentiated.

Wrapping It Up: Get to Work

At the end of the day, you’ll only know if idea stacking is working for you, and if your ideas have merit and a market, is by introducing them to the world. Whether that idea is starting a company, writing a book, or launching a new product line, the only way to know if it will be successful and how it can be improved upon is by getting it out there. Who knows — maybe the next Slack, Instagram, or Twitter await.