Take Your Good Idea One Step Further

    April 3, 2003

Whether you’re an executive, a member of a team, or an entrepreneur you often think ahead. When you do it in a formal sense, it’s called it planning; when you do it informally it’s something like speculating.

Whether you’re planning or speculating, the exercise represents just the tip of the iceberg. For the plans or scenarios to amount to something, they have to be implemented. In turn, that usually involves other people.

Which takes us to the subject of communication: How do you convert those ideas in your head into instructions or position papers or even real plans?

I recommend writing, as in investing some time to put the ideas to paper. Several benefits come out of the writing process:

First, you’ll force yourself to clarify what you’re doing and what you want others to do. As long as an idea remains in our heads, it’s not accountable, so to speak. That is, we don’t subject our ideas to rigorous scrutiny when they’re just thoughts.

But, when we write out an idea, the strengths and weaknesses show up rather quickly because we force ourselves to look at the idea more critically. When I wrote the publishing plan for Abbott’s Communication Letter, for example, the writing process uncovered many key issues.

But, writing it down assumes even greater importance when we need to communicate with others. Since most thoughts for the future are inherently complex or uncertain, a written version of your plan enables you to explain much more.

A written plan also communicates to others a broader scope than a verbal description. After all, when you’re writing, you can bring in the past, cover the present, and look into the future. Or, you can illustrate your points with more detail than you can in a verbal report.

So, let’s subject this article to the writing test, to see if the idea in it benefited from being written down.

First, the article opened with the idea of looking or thinking ahead, and I assumed — note, I assumed — that this thinking implied future action.

Second, you’ll see the idea that to take action, or to get others to take action on our behalf, we need to be clear about the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ before we start. Of course, not every action needs this kind of launch; perhaps I should have said “For important projects….”

Third, I suggested the way to get this clarity is to write it out, but in retrospect, perhaps that simply reflects my bias toward writing. Perhaps you manage well simply by thinking, and don’t need to write.

Fourth, I next listed a couple of benefits that flow from writing, and looking back I see that I had bigger projects in mind when I wrote it.

So, all in all, subjecting this article (at least the first part of it) to the writing process did have the desired effect, and I discovered a couple of assumptions that I wasn’t conscious of when I started. And, if I was writing a plan, especially a plan for a big project, those would be worthwhile discoveries.

Now, to be practical, here’s a quick and simple application of the writing-out process, one that, ironically, doesn’t require much actual writing.

Take a sheet of paper and divide it into about four equal parts by drawing a horizontal line across the page and a vertical line down the page.

Starting in the upper-left corner, write down the germ of the idea. Take just a few words and describe the basic idea. Don’t elaborate and don’t use any space beyond that square (which will force you to be concise). For example, “Try invoicing occasional customers at mid- month and end-of-month, rather than just at month-end.”

Moving to the upper-right corner, concisely explain the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of the idea. What will I gain by pursuing this idea? For example, “Could improve cash flow and reduce our line of credit cost by 5%.”

Now, go to the bottom-right corner and make notes about the ‘who’ and the ‘how’ involved in implementing the idea. For example, “Sales reps submit billing info by the 10th and 20th of each month, billing department processes and prints invoices by the 15th and 30th.”

Finally, in the lower-left corner, explain how you will know whether or not the idea worked. What will you measure or monitor to see whether or not you’re getting the benefits you identified in the upper right corner. For example, “Review the accounts receivable ratios and the costs of the line of credit each month.”

Now, you’ve got a one-page summary of your idea, and while it’s not a detailed plan, it should have helped you think through the idea, and even communicate its essence to others.

Download three free chapters from Robert Abbott’s book, A Manager’s Guide to Newsletters: Communicating for Results; it\s the first step toward creating a powerful and sustainable newsletter: http://www.managersguide.com/free-sample.html (and it will help you develop a strong newsletter name, too!)