The idea gauntlet

Many entrepreneurs will tell you that writing the one-page executive summary is the single most painful task they are required to do (at least early on).  Passionate entrepreneurs can speak for days about their startups, so it’s no surprise that they get frustrated when told that a viewer wants the entire package in just 30 seconds.  Only years later do some entrepreneurs look back and appreciate that they were forced to oversimplify and truncate their venture into a compact and concise presentation.

We use a basic process at Hublished that enables us to articulate, refine, and flesh out ideas.  The process is not original and goes by many names, but we like to call it the “Idea Gauntlet.”  It’s the process we used to write our executive summary, which, after taking three months to accomplish, is our single greatest written work as an organization.  It is our living, breathing constitution.  We use it to evaluate and guide our venture.  If your organization can perfect it, the Idea Gauntlet can be used not only for the executive summary, but also to shatter group think, evaluate proposed features, and even help structure your core business model.

The basic premise of the Idea Gauntlet is that before your organization executes any substantial strategy related to your business, that strategy should cycle through the key members of your organization, whoever they may be.  It could be the founders, shareholders, mentors, advisers, or even customers.  Everyone is encouraged – or better yet, forced – to give a swing and berate the idea.  For this to work effectively, it’s imperative that no one takes ownership of an idea, in order to avoid emotions and group think.  In fact, it’s better if documents are circulated anonymously.

Before I go into a breakdown of the actual process of the Idea Gauntlet, I want to share with you a lesson from an interview with Steve Jobs that was conducted right before Jobs joined Apple for the second time as CEO (after being fired in humiliatingly public fashion). It’s a long quote, but I think it is the very essence of what I am talking about:

One of the things that really hurt Apple was that, after I left, John Sculley (CEO of Apple at the time Jobs was fired) got a very serious disease…it’s the disease of thinking that a really great idea is 90% of the work, and that if you just tell all these other people ‘here’s this great idea,’ of course they can go off and make it happen. The problem is that there’s a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product. As you evolve that great idea, it changes and grows, and it never comes out like it starts…there are just tremendous tradeoffs you have to make…it’s that process that is the magic.

…when I was a young kid, there was a widowed man that lived up the street…I got to know him a little bit, and one day he said “Come into my garage – I want to show you something.” He pulled out this dusty, old rock tumbler. It was a motor, a coffee can, and a little band between them.

We went out to the back and we got some rocks. Some regular old, ugly rocks. And we put them in the can with a little bit of liquid and a little bit of grit powder. We closed the can up and he turned this motor on, and he said “Come back tomorrow.”

I came back the next day and we opened the can and took out these amazingly beautiful, polished rocks. The same common stones that had gone in, through rubbing against each other and creating a little bit of friction, creating a little bit of noise, had come out these beautiful, polished rocks.

And that’s always been, in my mind, my metaphor for a team working really hard on something they’re passionate about. It’s through the team, through that group of incredibly talented people, bumping up against each other, having arguments, having fights sometimes, making some noise, and working together, they polish each other, and they polish the ideas. What comes out are these really beautiful stones.

If you follow and perfect these five steps, you can grind down any idea, including your executive summary, into something beautiful and clean:

  1. Canvas - Lay out every single idea or thought in your head with regard to the task at hand.  Leave nothing out.
  2. Critique – Surround yourself with people you trust (not necessarily people you always agree with).  Have them attack your canvas.  The more you’re personally offended, the better the job they’re doing.  This group is the gauntlet.
  3. Cut – Take note of what the gauntlet has consistently liked and disliked.  Incorporate feedback and cut the fat.
  4. Compromise but never settle – Reword, reshape, tweak, and fine tune.  Remember that compromising is not settling.  The difference is that one leaves everyone content and the other leaves no one content.
  5. Recycle – That’s right.  Go back to step 2 and do it again.  And again.  Do it until you appreciate that you did it.

Remember, “It’s that process that is the magic.”