How to Wrangle in your Big Ideas

This is the second post in a series about the power of small ideas. In the first, we talked about why it's important to realize that small ideas can have as much or more impact than big ideas. In this article, we looked at how to re-envision your projects as a series of complete, smaller ideas making them easier to launch and manage. Next, we discussed 2 ways to stay aware of our projects' progress and keep them on track. Finally, I brought in a real example of small ideas at work with a recent project at Tumble Design.

Now, I’m going to take a few posts to really dig in to what I’ve been discovering as I try to shift my work mentality from big ideas to small ideas with big execution.

The posts will follow the same flow I have the past few months, starting with:

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Re-envisioning your ideas

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The first step to wrangling in your big idea is to re-envision it stripped bare and broken apart. It’s easy to get attached to a single image of a project, so this can take some courage - but it’s worth it.

If you’ve got an ambitious new web-app to work on, what’s the one core feature it needs to be useful to just one person (ideally you)? If it had that alone, would it really need to launch with a messaging system, comments, friending and on forever? It might, but challenge yourself and your project to see the lightest frame it can stand on.

Maybe you’re putting together a course on a topic you know a ton about. It’s going to be incredible: packed full of written content, videos, interviews, have a slick website and engage the participants with each other in a way like never before. It’s an excellent big idea, but also sounds pretty difficult to control.

What if you viewed each component as its own complete project. What if within each one of those you scraped out the fluff and just focused on what was most important. Do you think it would get finished faster or slower? Do you think it would be richer or duller? Do you think the pieces would have more to connect on or less, after having a chance to fill out a bit on their own?

Extract the small ideas from the big ideas. Get them done in their simplest form so that you then have options and perspective instead of obligations and tunnel-vision.

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As a developer, you gain a sense for what I call ‘user interaction loops', a full sequence of user actions that complete a task and return the user to Point A. When something is yet to be completed in a sequence of interactions, even just explanation text, the whole loop feels off. Like when you walk into your kitchen after being away from home and things smell a bit funny - you just know there's something that needs work somewhere.

As I code, I visually represent this interaction loop as a ring in my head that the user tracks along and I track along with the user as I work. This technique served me for a long time before I was consciously aware of it.

When I started thinking about how big projects could be divvied up into smaller ones, I naturally extended this mental concept into Project Rings - separate, fully contained, continuous projects within a project that all alone provide value to a user. The first ring is the simplest, bare-bones version of your idea. This is what the guys at Venture Hacks would call a Minimum Viable Product, but I would apply Project Rings to any idea, web-startup or not.

That initial ring can spiral into new ones as the project grows and what was once another ring can spiral together with the original.

This may not be the visualization that works naturally for you, but find one that does. Digg, now being revamped by newly CEOed Kevin Rose, is using the concept of ‘project trains’ that's right along these lines.

We're creating a mental framework that helps small ideas reliably progress, launch and turn into a project with serious impact that looks like it was a big idea from the start (of course, we know better!).

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Ideas are mental images. We need to create mental constructs that help us organize all the images our big ideas come with into crisp, approachable small ideas.

But just because we're now working on well-contained, bite-sized projects, that doesn't mean we can't get carried away and slouch back out of control.

No fear! In the next article, we're going to take a close look into the importance of awareness and self-evaluation when it comes to launching small ideas with big impact.

Don't just read, take action!

  • Hypothetically remove a core feature from a project you're working on and experiment with ways of designing around it. Prove to yourself that even the most essential-seeming components may not be so essential after all.
  • Try launching a blatantly under-featured project to close friends. See if you really do miss having all those details you were planning to add, if it needs a totally different set of features or maybe many less than expected.
  • Come up with your own mental framework for visualizing the progression of small ideas and keep conscious of it as it naturally evolves over time.

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