Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Funnel Cake: Opening and closing the funnel

Image by Ines Hegedus-Garcia
There are hundreds of diagrams on “new product development”, “innovation”, or “problem solving”.  Instead of drawing you a complex GIF, I’m going to simplify the whole process into FOUR LINES.  Ready?

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That simple.  One of the most important concepts to grasp is that you should always be either opening or closing the funnel, but not both at the same time.   These two actions are polar opposites, and problems arise when you aren’t absolutely clear on which you are engaged in.

When you first define a problem you’re trying to solve (say… urban transportation) , you start by opening the funnel.  Create tons of new ideas (dog sleds).  State the obvious (bikes and trains). Branch out (working from home).  Actively seek bad ideas (trebuchets).  Go for quantity (pigeon powered flight).  Have lots of fun.  Draw.  Don’t criticize.  Build ideas up.  Say “Yes, and… “  Use post its or paper or white boards.  We’ll discuss many of these techniques in later posts.  

Now after you’ve generated dozens or hundreds of ideas, it’s time to start closing the funnel.  Different rules apply.  You’ll want to start categorizing ideas (personal vehicles, public vehicles, social structure change…).  You need to decide on which aspects of the concepts are most important (cost, size, infrastructure, distance traveled…)  This is a process of narrowing down.  You need structure.  You need pugh charts and debating systems and voting systems.  Your end goal is to take hundreds of ideas and whittle them down to a handful.

And then you repeat.

With your new narrow focus, you’ll have to widen the funnel again, but this time within the constraints of each concept.  What are all the ways you can utilize dog sleds?  Expand.  Then it’s narrowing time.  Contract.  Yes, this process is one that requires you to be bipolar.  You need to be two different people, but again, NOT AT THE SAME TIME.

This is most important when working with a team.  People will naturally be more exploratory or more critical in nature.  As you can see, BOTH of these are important.  When told expressly to be one or the other, most people can handle this for an hour-long meeting, especially if you remind them.  But if you don’t specify whether you are opening or closing the funnel, then people will default to their natural inclinations.  And that will result in brainstorming meetings where someone kills the vibe by constantly criticizing ideas without proposing new ones.  Or imagine a meeting where you’re trying to decide between two options and someone keeps adding new options in the middle of the debate.  This happens all the time and is easy to avoid.  Just be sure to ask at all times, both with yourself and with your team: are we opening or closing the funnel?