4 Ways To Avoid False Positives Ideas

I’m always skeptical of first right answers. It’s rare for the first idea that comes to mind to be the best solution to your problem.

A few months back I was working on a product enhancement that would add structure to our internal notes functionality (we’re building a conversational applicant tracking system and usually people like to include notes on candidates). 

I jumped at the first idea to solve the problem, built out the requirements, and got the designs mocked up. Within a week the product was ready to be built and shipped. Then I got feedback… It wasn’t the best way we could tackle or solve the problem. We had functionality already built for another use case that allowed users to complete a form. Adapting that functionality to serve as a note would allow us to avoid more time developing the feature, reduce the complexity of configuration, and build around current user behaviors.

I had fallen into the trap of false positive ideas by taking the first right answer as if it was the best answer.

Creative people regularly receive false positive ideas. You’ll have an idea that you believe is good, but really it’s mediocre. Anchoring bias causes you to put too much emphasis on one idea when making a decision. Single piece of information gets all the weight and we ignore all the others1.

When you peel back the layers of a false positive idea you’ll find there’s a seed that exists for a better idea to pivot to.

The Original Story Behind This 2009 Highest Grossing Film

Chances are you’ve probably seen the movie Up. The movie tells the story of a widower and a boy scout flying to South America in a house carried by balloons. Up was the highest grossing film in 2009 earning $751M world wide and has grown into a cultural icon.

Pete Docter, the director, later revealed the team's original plan for the story to be very different2.

In an interview Docter said, “The original story for Up was very abstract. It was a floating city of characters that looked vaguely like muppets, and two brothers that were the heirs to the throne always getting in fights over it. They fall off, and the city floats away. Then they're exposed to all these creatures on the ground – a tall, lanky bird with a spear. All very bizarre.”

Once the writers really dug into the idea they realized the underlying theme was aimed at escapism. Doctor admitted the story wasn’t the problem. The characters were the issue.

Disney and Pixar recognized the false positive idea. They pivoted the characters away from princes that had everything to an old man that lost everything. The script was revamped to emphasize someone who felt the need to escape.

Who knows how the original movie would have turned out. It’s certain that the second right answer was a success though.

False positives have their purpose: plant the seed for a bright idea to grow.

4 Ways To Navigate False Positive Ideas

When you peel back the layers of a false positive idea you’ll find there’s a seed that exists for a better idea to pivot to.

With a little extra thought and validation you can easily overcome false positives ideas. Let’s be honest, no idea ever feels perfect. The ability to explore imperfect ideas, recognize when they’re a false positive, and course correct is what’s important.

Develop A Negative Capability

All ideas go through a process of “natural selection”. The worst ideas are just immediately screened out. As you diverge in your creative process bad ideas come in. Through convergence those ideas collide with good ones serving some purpose. This process explains how to recognize big ideas.

The 19th century poet, John Keats called this negative capacity. He deemed it a critical part of the creative process3. Quality of creative outputs is determined by our ability to hold multiple contradictory ideas in our head (many of which are false positives). All great entrepreneurs have this capacity.

In April 2009, an unlikely partnership was being explored by a small team of Starbucks leadership. They flew out to Blizzard Entertainment’s headquarters. 

“Does anyone know the number-one-selling online game of all time?” Stephen Gillett, Starbucks’ Chief Information Officer, asked a few weeks earlier. He was suggesting a potential Starbucks partnership with World of Warcraft’s parent company. Something so far outside the idea of coffee no one imagined it had any feasibility.

The team still got on a flight to California to meet with Blizzard. What a partnership could look like was still explored. Nothing came of it. But this idea prompted Starbucks to ask important questions about how they would connect with customers in the digital space.

This false positive idea led to the creation of “Starbucks Digital Network” in partnership with Yahoo4.

Negative capacity allows you to refine your ideas to get to the best novel solution even when you know they’re potentially a false positive.

Remove Unnecessary Assumptions

If you want to be right more often, remove all your assumptions. Maybe your assumptions are right. In which case they move you closer to the objective truth. But the majority of the time assumptions increase your chances of being equally or less right.

Ideas rooted in assumptions are always false positive ideas without a strong foundation.

Occam’s razor is a powerful tool to cut through unnecessary assumptions. It pushes you to get the simplest explanation5. It’s important that you ask “does this assumption really need to be here?” 

Approach assumptions with the mindset of guilty until proven innocent. Seek out evidence that it needs to remain rather than creating a false dependency on it.

Malcolm McLean was an ambitious, risky entrepreneur who used macro opportunities to get rich. He made good money transporting fuel. His first decade McLean had 162 trucks earning him $2.2M (equivalent to $38.5M in 2024). Another 10 years later and he’d go on to 3x his earnings.

Coastal shipping declined post WW2 and roads became crowded. Malcom McLean shut his profitable business down to focus on testing shipping containers (the big metal boxes we know today). Immediately he cut shipping costs by 99%. To transport a ton cost $0.16 with a standard container versus $5.83 which is what it was at the time.

McLean struggled to get standard shipping containers off the ground, but once he did they transformed global shipping. He made enormous amounts of money from this. 

Now having two successful businesses on his record he started a third venture in the 1970s when the speed of container shipping dropped. This business was rooted in the unnecessary assumption that oil prices and shipping timetables didn’t change.

Fourteen large but slow “Econships” were built to go around the world continuously so they never returned empty to a port. A few years later McLean Industries filed for bankruptcy with $1.2B in debt. It was the largest bankruptcy in American history at the time7.

Unnecessary assumptions will only act to amplify false positive ideas by making you think they’re good ones.

Have A “Taste” Test

Your “taste” test should be developed during the pre-work process. I’ve written before about Max Martin’s “Car Test” that he uses to know when a song is complete. A success test for your work will add guardrails to help you avoid false positive ideas.

Taste is insufficiently acknowledged in the process of idea selection.

Charles Lewis Tiffany always had extraordinary business knowledge and crafty strategies. In 1837, Tiffany opened his first shop in New York selling stationary and fancy ware. His mission was to connect the American wealthy with the fine arts and craftsmanship of ancient Europe8.

Tiffany & Co. never would have grown into the enterprise it is today had it not been for Charles Tiffany’s flawless taste. Taste was the necessary element that allowed him to choose his merchandise well.

For Charles Tiffany, selecting merchandise and developing his taste was a form of creativity. Ultimately it was what the wealthy paid for. I’m sure Tiffany had qualities he looked for in the items he curated. Over time the taste test he developed allowed his business to thrive.

Build A Braintrust

“No two minds ever come together without thereby creating a third, invisible, intangible force which may be likened to a third mind,” Napoleon Hill wrote in Think and Grow Rich. The third mind he’s referring to is the stimulus bouncing ideas off other people creates for your own creativity.

John Lasseter created what they called the braintrust at Pixar by accident in the early days9. Their braintrust helped Pixar produce quality ideas and fueled the culture that would later scrap a false positive idea to create the movie Up.

The Pixar braintrust started with Lasseter and 4 other people who were driven and passionate about the films they were working on. They would have intense discussion within the group. 

Each person shares notes with each other. No one had a position of authority. Everyone involved in the braintrust shared influential feedback with each other. It was candid. No one held back.

If any idea sucked they let the person know. The third mind Napoleon Hill references would immediately recognize the false positive ideas. A braintrust isn’t just about feedback though. They also worked in collaboration to find the second right answer to problems.

There’s an advantage people gain when surrounding themselves with advice and counsel from people working in collaboration that a solo creative lacks. You’ll always have less false positive ideas that slip through with a braintrust

FOOTNOTES
  1. https://fs.blog/biases-and-blunders/
  2. https://web.archive.org/web/20210419175725/https://www.digitalspy.com/movies/a36164002/up-original-story-revealed-disney-pixar/
  3. Holiday, R. (2017) in Perennial seller: The art of making and marketing work that lasts. London: Profile Books, pp. 39-76.
  4. https://stories.starbucks.com/stories/2011/starbucks-digital-network-in-partnership-with-yahoo-debuts-new-content-prov/
  5. https://fs.blog/occams-razor/
  6. Weinberg, G. and McCann, L. (2019) Super thinking. Penguin USA, p. 8.
  7. Ridley, M. (2021) in How innovation works and why it flourishes in freedom. New York: Harper Perennial, pp. 164-170.
  8. Johnson, P. (2007) Creators: From Chaucer and Dürer to Picasso and disney. New York: Harper Perennial, p. 190
  9. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1Mr3oKR7oM

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