The power of three for idea development

David Harvey

When I work with authors and entrepreneurs on their ideas, one-on-one sessions miss something. So do big brainstorms. The best number is three. One extra person makes a dramatic difference.

I’ve done this “idea development” thing about ten times now. (For authors, I call it a “book whisperer” session.) I start with an author, or sometimes, a company founder looking for help with brand identity. If they’re talking to me, they have a good idea, but it’s mushy and ill-formed. They want my help to make it snappy and inspiring.

Our objective is to find the right words to describe their creation (I’m as much a word guy as an idea guy.) The output is a “treatment” — a title/name, subtitle or tag line, and a page-and-a-half treatment. So we set up a 90-minute meeting.

“One more thing,” I always say. “We need a third person. And it has to be the right person.” The third person must be:

  • Smart.
  • Someone you really trust.
  • Generous enough to willingly spend the time (that is, probably a friend).
  • Not your best friend, lover, or spouse.
  • Not shy.
  • Familiar with the general topic (for example, marketing, or management, or nutrition).
  • Not intimately familiar with your idea.

The purpose of the third person is to provide, not just ideas, but perspective.

The focus group of one

To prepare the person with the idea, I pose a bunch of questions for them to think about. But I don’t ask them to write anything down. (They’ve typically already shared a bunch of written materials with me ahead of time.)

To prepare the third person, I do nothing. “Just come with an open mind,” I tell them. It’s important to me that the third person has not been sucked into the topic yet.

As the idea development session begins, I get the person with the idea talking. We may have some putative objective, such as developing the marketing copy. But that’s not my real objective. My real objective is to hear the words they use. I look for words and ideas that stand out, are different, odd, counterintuitive, provocative, differentiated. When I hear something ordinary, I reject it (“Go to market quickly? That’s boring. Hire the smartest people? Duh.”) and prod the person with the idea to be clearer and more interesting. I say “I don’t understand” a lot, even if I sort of do. It’s not my job to make them feel good. It’s my job to make them say something I can use.

The third person is essential. First off, the author or entrepreneur has already explained the idea to me. It’s hard for them to see me as naive and ignorant about their idea. But the third person is new. By explaining things to the third person and me, the author or entrepreneur has to find new ways of expressing the idea clearly. The more ways they do that, the better our chances of finding the right description.

The third person is also helpful in ideation. I have only my own perspective. But often, the third person helps generate new concepts, ideas, and words from their own knowledge and vocabulary. Sometimes they suggest the winning title, sometimes they suggest something that’s not quite right, but gets us closer. But three people — people whose relationships with each other are varied — generate more ideas than two.

Finally, and most importantly, the third person is a sounding board. If my client and I think we have nailed a great title or way to express things, I turn to them and say, “What do you think of that?” If they say, “I don’t get it,” then it’s probably not the right idea, no matter how much we might love it. If they say “That’s fascinating,” then we’re onto something. The third person becomes our instant focus group of one.

Sometimes I work with coauthors or cofounders. That’s fine, but we still need an outsider. If there are two creators plus me, I add a fourth person. The cocreators know each other too well. I don’t want to hear the same choruses and same arguments they always have. I need an additional perspective.

Not a brainstorm — but not a therapy session, either

I’ve found the dynamics of these sessions thrilling. And so far, they have always been successful. I try not to promise success — creativity is such a fickle thing, how can you count on it — but somehow, success has always been the result.

In a brainstorm, there are typically a lot of people. The purpose is to generate a lot of ideas, and you are not supposed to reject any. Idea development requires a lot of rejection on the way to a more refined and pointed ideas.

Regarding my title ideas, one client I had said “I’m so sorry to be rejecting everything you come up with.” I thought that was funny. I said “Look, you are going to reject all the ideas we come up with, except one: the right one. Rejecting ideas is an essential part of the process. With three people, you get the right amount of rejection. With five or more, you’ll find a reason to reject everything.

Including the third person transforms the dynamic — somehow, rejections become just wrestling with the problem. It’s much harder to end up at an impasse, because the third person typically suggests a path forward. It’s tough. But it’s a blast.

And we all end up smiling at the end.

A quick note: pop by my Facebook page for the Facebook Live presentation of the 2016 Bullshitty Awards today at 2 Eastern. Here about some very public people who should have spent more time on idea development.

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