How Ideas Take Shape

Ideas do not come into the world fully formed. They take shape. This drawing is a model for bringing ideas to life. It is based on the acronym for Shape — See, Hear, Ask, Play, Engage. I used to hate acronyms until I studied the word. It is Greek and literally means the “tip of the word.” Some of the original acronyms were Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, RADAR and LASER. So, those are cool words.

Here’s how the model works:

1. See & Hear. Observation and listening are key elements in idea hunting. They are the primary activities — not talking. We want to ask questions and we aren’t very good at it and our questions introduce bias. So, just watch and listen. When I worked at Saatchi, we would take executives shopping for their products in stores and just watch them. Many couldn’t find their own products on the shelf.

Anthropologists have been watching people in their cultures for years. It’s a great way to learn that I discovered firsthand. Before I was married, I worked at a greeting card company in product development. I got an assignment to create baby products. You know, first year books, calendar, etc. So, I invited all the Mom’s I knew to a meeting, and asked them to bring their baby books. It was a revelation. Watching them look through the books and listening to them tell stories to the other women. I realized that these books were a measure of motherhood, and it shaped our development of a whole suite of tools for mom’s to capture those early years. But I got those insights by seeing and hearing.

2. Ask & Play. These are the first and second activities. First you have to Ask, but not with your mouth. Ask with your eyes – watch intently, observe. Ask with your ears by listening to conversations and hearing what people are really saying. Like those mom’s telling me about a baby book, but really telling me about their desire to remember and mark milestones in their child’s lives and lacking both the tools and time to do so.

After you Ask, you Play. This is the creative part of the exercise, and it should not feel like work. If it does, then you are doing it work. Work and stress are flow killers and constrict ideas. I’ve got a great tool for ideation called Deconstruction. I’ll share it in another post.

3. Engage your idea with the world. Get feedback (n:1) from lots of people. How do they like it? Watch (see) them use it. Listen (hear) them talk about it as they use it. Insight. Insight. Insight. Harvest these learnings and go back into the Ask or Play phase again. Iterate until you are ready to Engage again. Then repeat until you have a winner — and your idea has taken shape.

The diagram is a matrix with See & Hear on the Y-Axis and Ask & Play on the X-Axis. This makes 4 distinct activities: Two in the Ask mode, and two in the Play mode. Only then do you engage your audience. Repeat as needed. It’s a total of 6 steps. To recap the process:

  1. See/Ask phase. Watch and observe.
  2. Hear/Ask phase. Listen and learn.
  3. See/Play phase. Work out the pattern.
  4. Hear/Play phase. Talk out ideas.
  5. Engage phase. Get it out into the world.
  6. Repeat. As needed.

We’ll spend time on this in other posts looking at how to execute these phases — best practices, etc.