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Focus Your Search For Better Ideas

The first stage of FIRE, Focus, is about doing a thorough but organized search, so you don’t inadvertently ignore a critical area of discovery. Successful innovation is the translation of better ideas into something, such as a product, that is real. If you are focused in your approach, you will be a

Phil McKinney
Phil McKinney
3 min read
Better Ideas

The first stage of FIRE, Focus, is about doing a thorough but organized search, so you don’t inadvertently ignore a critical area of discovery. Successful innovation is the translation of better ideas into something, such as a product, that is real. If you are focused in your approach, you will be able to decide if there are better ideas worth pursuing with much less stress than if you are scattershot in your approach.


When I was twenty-eight years old I was given my first big opportunity to prove myself at Thumbscan, a company that did pioneering work in fingerprint biometric security. Thumbscan was thinking about acquiring a company called Gordian Systems. Gordian had one product: a token security device that was quite popular in the government but didn’t have any other customers. Despite the viability of the product, they weren’t making enough money, and they looked set to go out of business. I was asked to go look at Gordian and see if I could come up with a concept or idea that would justify Thumbscan acquiring the company.

The first thing I noticed was that Gordian was highly focused on catering to their government contracts, to the extent that they couldn’t think beyond selling one product to one customer. Their rules and assumptions were so locked into “This is what we do,” they literally couldn’t consider doing anything differently. The first thing I thought when I met with the Gordian team members was “Why aren’t they thinking more broadly?” I couldn’t understand why they weren’t asking, “Are there other customers who could benefit from what we’ve developed?” “What do they need, and how would we develop and support it?” “What are the new issues in corporate PC security going to be?” They had one customer who loved what they did, but it didn’t make big enough orders to support the entire company. Yet they were so focused on this customer that they were missing the other customers and products that they could have developed.

Creating The Product Of The Year

Of course, part of my approach was expediency; I’d been given a very small window of time to come up with something that justified acquiring the assets. I didn’t have the time to sit in a room for days coming up with a potentially viable idea; I needed a solid product concept within the next day or so. Rather than just sitting down and waiting for a magic idea to come up, I went through and did a methodical search, point-by-point.

Over the course of one day I looked at three areas of Focus:

  1. Who are the potential new customers we could we target?
  2. What would we have to build to appeal to them? And
  3. How would we do it? What I wanted to find out was simple: “Could we come up with a unique product?”

At the end of the twenty-four hours, I had the beginnings of an idea called PCBoot. PC Boot took Gordian Systems’ existing technology and applied it to a whole new audience—the burgeoning business PC market.

PCBoot won “Security Product Of The Year” that year from PC Magazine and at the COMDEX show in Las Vegas.

Focus On The Greatest Opportunity

The point here is that the first step to successful ideation is to bring focus to the areas with the greatest opportunity. Rather than waiting for serendipity to happen, you are concentrating on the areas where innovation could have the biggest effect on your organization. Focus is structured to make sure you’ve looked carefully at every area of your business, without missing any area of opportunity.

Think of an astronomer searching the sky for new stars. They will study very small areas of the sky, very intently. When they have observed everything there is to see, they move on to the next small area. Focus is not about limiting the search, but instead using a systematic approach to make sure all the relevant areas are covered. There are three areas that any innovation effort needs to look at in order to cover all their bases:

  • Who is the person or organization that you sell your product or service to (i.e., your customer)?
  • What is the product or service you deliver to the customer?
  • How does your organization create, deliver, and support the product (what) to the customer (who)?

In my experience, most organizations focus on the customer (who) and the product (what). They tend to ignore everything else the organization does in order to function (how). You will automatically be miles ahead of your competitors simply by looking at all of these areas rather than limiting yourself to just one of them.

I would suggest you go through them one at a time and try not to tackle all of them at once. However, it is important that you cover all three areas eventually, otherwise you will leave yourself open to potential blind spots. Focus should be a never-ending process of cycling through all three areas, ensuring you are on top of the continual changes and evolutions in your industry. Remember – focus is about not just finding ideas but about finding better ideas.

If you’re not sure which area is the most relevant to your needs, just pick one. You’ll be going through them all eventually.

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Phil McKinney is an innovator, podcaster, author, and speaker. He is the retired CTO of HP. Phil's book, Beyond The Obvious, shares his expertise and lessons learned on innovation and creativity.


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