The best way to get a newly formed team moving on its initial product idea is to ask one simple question, “Why hasn’t this already been done?”

It’s an inviting question that hints at the possibility of the idea being novel.

We impress upon students the importance of taking a little time – a few days – to find out where their idea (or an idea like theirs) has already been tried. Once they find one, they can adjust their product accordingly.

Answering this question gives our teams focus and a starting point for their research. It’s amazing what you can learn from previous attempts, and it will prevent you from building something that’s already been tried.

The big challenge, of course, is that most ideas are not unique. Inevitably, students find out that somebody has already tried their idea – or something like it.

Novelty obviously doesn’t make something desirable, feasible or viable. But the outlandish ideas – the unique ones – are the ideas worth pursuing at this early stage.

Those ideas are hard to find.

I co-teach in the entrepreneurship minor program in UNC’s economics department. During our initial brainstorm session in class a few weeks ago, we challenged 125 students to come up with outrageous ideas related to an aging population.

After a few minutes, three different groups presented the same basic idea, “Tinder for senior citizens.” Each group thought the idea was creative and original.

It wasn’t.

I don’t consider an idea to be novel if three independent groups come up with the same thing. If more than one person thought of it, it should be skipped.

Students aren’t the only people who have trouble brainstorming a unique idea.

I was in workshop for media professionals last year where participants were put into teams of 10 to 12 and asked to come up with some ways to present a story differently.

Three of the groups presented a “build your own adventure” type of story for a news event. (Full disclosure: my group was one of them.) So where is the novelty if different groups of folks come up with the same idea?

It happens all the time – in classes, in the Reese News Lab, and in the industry. We don’t seem to take the time to think about the outrageous ideas – particularly on the business side. Or, we think that the outrageous idea simply will not work and continue with revenue models based on the same things.

That’s why we ask students “Why hasn’t this already been done?” And it’s because of that question that all of our ideas are different on pitch day than they were on day one.

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