Northern Virginians have shared cars with random strangers since 1971 but none of them founded a major ride-share company. Traffic is so horrendous drivers open their cars to unknown riders just to leverage the High Occupancy Vehicles lanes. Riders, in turn, avoid hours of frustration driving in traffic. The practice, known as slugging, became so prevalent that the Virginia Department of Transportation guarantees a ride for anyone who needs to leave work before the evening rush hour. Many Northern Virginians have been exposed to slugging for their entire lives but never transferred the experience into a meaningful ride-share business of their own. Research suggests this may be the result of two errors. These Slugs may have considered founding a ride-share company but chose a less creative idea instead. Then they overestimated customer response to their choice.

Research shows that creators inaccurately rank their creative business ideas.

Entrepreneurs typically produce many business ideas but can only pursue the one that’s most likely to succeed. Justin Berg, professor at Stanford Business School, discovered that participants in one study ranked their most creative ideas behind others with less potential. They judge the ideas in their current states rather than their final forms. The highest-ranking ideas, although somewhat creative, were often so well-formed that they lacked the potential that more abstract ideas had. However, when given the time, effort, and proper guidance, creators remedied the mistake and developed the ideas with the most potential. 

Accurately ranking opportunities requires understanding the rationale used to assess them in the first place. Categorizing each idea into four areas quantifies which characteristics most influence the order. Creativity is the combination of novelty and usefulness so researchers assess both. Researchers also measure an idea’s abstractness and concreteness. Create a simple scale, perhaps 1 to 5, to quantify each category’s significance. Weighing each idea by these characteristics provides the first step in accurately ranking the most creative ideas.

Imagine your top three ideas a few years from now and determine which will become the most novel and useful then.

Next, determine whether you are evaluating a potential business idea as it exists today or in the future. The goal is to imagine the product or service a few years from now. Studies on creativity hinge on what’s called Construal Level Theory (CLT), which explains how our brains view concepts differently based on their proximity. People think abstractly when things are further away and concretely when they are closer. For instance, ask yourself “What are my plans 5 years from now?” Once you have an answer, ask, “What are my plans for tomorrow?”  The 5-year plans are abstract and include things like changing jobs, starting a family, or buying a house. Tomorrow’s tasks are concrete: going to work, finishing a report, or buying milk. CLT explains why creative ideas may feel too abstract. 

Reset your perspective to a few years in the future. Maybe technology drives our cars or delivers our purchases. Maybe people rely more on side gigs like Uber, Instacart, and Airbnb. Maybe society is more polarized politically or we’ve finally come to our senses. Then the status quo will seem different and your creative idea will fit better.

In an earlier paper, Berg discovered that creative thinkers overestimate their idea’s potential success but accurately forecast others’ projects. He measured the ability of performers, former performers, managers, and laypeople to anticipate audience responses to new stage acts. Former performers, managers, and laypeople underestimated each. But current performers more accurately assessed audience response with one caveat. They assessed other’s ideas more accurately than their own. 

You are not the best judge of your idea’s appeal. Other impartial creators will assess it better than you.

Entrepreneurs, like all creators, have blind spots with regard to their own work. They may mistakenly develop a less creative idea and overestimate its potential success. Finding the ideal opportunity and assessing its potential appeal is a balancing act. 

  1. Categorize your ideas to accurately rank them.
  2. Imagine them a few years from now to assess which will be the most creative in its final form.
  3. Leverage collaborative entrepreneurial groups like masterminds as sounding boards. Their feedback should assist in developing your idea and determining customer acceptance.

You’ve heard or thought that your idea is whacky or bizarre. Your friends have winced and politely asked if you really want to pursue it. People – yourself included – naturally compare ideas to today’s reality not tomorrow’s. Then when you finally commit to the idea, you expect it to overtake the market before it’s fully developed. Dissecting your idea and imagining it in the context of a future reality helps to identify the idea with the greatest creative potential. Having other creators critique it provides a counterbalance to ensure it is fully developed. Then it won’t be abstract or weird or off the wall. It won’t be half-baked. It will be the idea that prompts the same question that every Northern Virginia rush-hour warrior pondered when Uber and Lyft became popular. “Why didn’t I think of that?”