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Why Your Best Idea is Not Your Best

The company's first launch failed completely. So did the next three. Its revenue was $200 per week. Since it was a tech company, the founders tried to figure out how to alter the user interface to increase click-through rates and optimize the search engine results. It did no good.

Luckily, an external mentor brought a change of perspective, and he told them, "the photos of the rental apartments your company is listing are dreadful. Buy a camera, fly to New York, and go photograph the apartments yourselves." "This is ridiculous," they said, "it won't work, but even if it does, it won't scale. We can't photograph every house." But surprisingly, the cross-country photography trip doubled revenue, and everyone knows the rest of the story.

This is the story of Airbnb (as told by co-founder Joe Gebbia here and here), and it is a great example of how we can become wedded to a paradigm, a way of looking at problems, and eventually only think along those lines. We find a best idea, and we cannot let go if it. As Gebbia himself admits, "The reason [for the first four failures]…is that we had this Silicon Valley mentality that you had to solve problems in a scalable way because that’s the beauty of code…our first session with Paul Graham at Y Combinator...[he] gave us permission to do things that don’t scale changed the trajectory of the business."

Whether it's believing that the code is the panacea or some other firmly-held belief, we often close off potential solutions without even considering them. Avoiding this pitfall is highly stressed in Design Thinking (DT), an approach to design used by firms like IDEO (their clients include Apple, Bank of America, and the like) and companies like IBM and BMW.

DT provides a methodology that unleashes creativity and finds effective solutions because it breaks down traditional ways of thinking. And so at its core, this post is about thinking, specifically about how our normal method of thinking can limit us.

I attended a K-12 school that introduced DT in early elementary school and gave us access to a DT-themed maker space, so I’ve been using it my whole life. For me, the principle of deferring judgment when ideating is one of the most useful Design Thinking techniques. Deferring judgment means not disparaging any ideas as unworthy and not becoming wedded to any ideas either. Overall, DT encourages challenging our held assumptions. We have these assumptions because they work most of the time, but great ideas sometimes live outside the realm of “most.”

In my experience teaching Design Thinking to everyone from young kids to Stanford graduate students, I found that the thing that people from all different backgrounds and ages struggle with the most is letting go of their ideas. “I'm done” and “I’m not going to come up with a better idea” are quite common retorts, but it's important to remember that great ideas can sound crazy at first and vice versa.

To highlight an IDEO project, the firm was tasked with developing a banking platform for Bank of America. Instead of sticking with the banking industry's best ideas and conventional wisdom, they targeted extreme users who were historically unbanked by rolling out a debit card that rounded purchases to the dollar and added the change to a savings account—and the program has banked 2 billion dollars.

Returning to the story of Airbnb, one might object that while the crazy photography idea worked once, it was a lucky break, not a scalable solution. I would point you to Airbnb's photography assistance program and for smaller listers their photography guide. Just because the initial idea doesn't sound easily expandable doesn't always mean we should write it off as such.

It's important to say that one need not always follow this mindset in a structured fashion. Instead, it’s a useful mentality to be able to switch to. Most disciplines involve some facet of creative problem solving and design, and it's important to defer judgment there. I'll add that Airbnb has integrated this principle into their organization. Gebbia says, "Anytime somebody comes to me with something, my first instinct when I look at it is to think bigger...Come back to me when you've thought about that times 100. Show me what that looks like." And so don't take it from me, take it from an Airbnb Co-Founder. Your best idea is not always your best.

Alexander Chin is a Case Team Leader for CBE and a Sophomore studying Mathematics and Computer Science.

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