One great idea can change the world — but only if people know about it and use it. Having a great idea is therefore only half the battle. The other half is replicating it.
This is part two of a 3-part series. Read part one here.
One great idea can change the world — but only if people know about it and use it. Having a great idea is therefore only half the battle. The other half is replicating it. I’ve spent over thirty years replicating one idea: that every child would benefit greatly by learning to start a small business and, in turn, would positively affect their communities and, ultimately, the entire world.
Now that I’ve had some time to reflect on this journey, I can see what worked and what failed to spread this idea. Here are the principles that have worked for me.
Twelve Tenets for Replicating an Idea
1. Recognize Your Idea as an Agent of Change
Visualize how you want the world to be and imagine your idea as an agent of change. Keep the core idea to one sentence — and then outline the big picture in full detail. Use visuals, define strategy, and encourage discussion: Ask others to envision your goals. This process will define the integrity of your idea, and ensure that it is the driving force behind everything you do.
Look for new ideas at the intersection of two seemingly disparate situations that, when overlapped, create a harmonious solution. In my case, those two separate situations were 1) small business training and 2) teaching low income youth. When I began teaching public high school in 1982, these two concepts had yet to be combined. Traditionally, most schools globally are not conducive to entrepreneurial culture. School curriculum is often based on memory recall and isolated problem solving. It tends to lack an overarching framework that connects reading and math to the workplace environment.
As a result, my students were often not motivated to learn. When I began teaching them practical business lessons, however, they became very engaged. I discovered that students actively want to apply what they learn in the classroom to the outside world in a real, tangible way — not in preparation for what may arise, but in the here and now. I built my career on this insight. Combining core curriculum with teaching entrepreneurship became a self-sustaining concept, and the mission of providing entrepreneurship programs to inspire young people from low-income communities to stay in school and plan for successful futures encapsulated my vision: Every child can learn to create a pathway to prosperity.
2. Define Your Mission and Your Strategy
Your mission is to move the world closer to your vision. Write a mission statement that will distinguish your mission from others and yet allow for creative growth. Defining your mission is essential because it conveys what you do and provides the framework for your actions. It is the context in which current activities are evaluated and from which strategies will be formulated. NFTE holds the value of my initial idea in its mission statement: NFTE provides a highly experiential and academic program that inspires young people from low income communities to recognize opportunity and plan for successful futures by pursuing educational opportunities and starting their own businesses.
Your strategy, how you are going to compete, is comprised of the creative tactics you use to accomplish your mission personified by how you utilize your resources. NFTE integrates entrepreneurship classes within school curricula and structures after-school programs, with the goal of teaching business literacy to low-income youth. The three main areas of services are: entrepreneurship and business literacy curriculum; teacher training and certification to implement NFTE programs; and alumni services to provide a network of support for program graduates. This last allows us to evaluate our long-term impact. Every service we offer replicates our initial, core idea: Every child deserves to learn economic self-sustainability.
3. Marshal Your Resources for Greater Impact.
Your primary role as change agent will be to marshal resources and to allocate them successfully. Put together a package of resources — facilities, labor, capital sources, branding potential — to support your idea and the organization you will be forming to accommodate it. You will be creating a support system for your idea that will enable you to generate awareness of your mission and provide for future growth.
Your legal structure (for-profit or non-profit) will be part of your strategy for gathering resources. Choose carefully, as each has its pros and cons. Work through multiple legal structures and have your idea integrated into other legal structures to get maximum impact and leverage. By infusing your idea into other structures you will be using other organizations’ fixed costs as a vehicle to replicate and advance your idea. And remember, you can replicate an idea without a legal structure simply by publishing and speaking to audiences about it. That was Planck’s methodology.
4. Protect the Integrity of Your Idea: Brand It.
Document, copyright, patent and trademark, and be prepared to use the legal system of intellectual property rights as defined in various countries, to solidify your idea into being. You may not own the idea, but you own the expression of it, and this is what you will need to protect.
Choosing the right name for your organization is vital. It should make a great first impression and be easily remembered. Include a tagline that emphasizes what you do. Initially, my organization’s name was the South Bronx Entrepreneurial Education Project, but I soon realized that this would not do for a national movement, so I changed it to the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE). As we began to develop international partnerships, we changed the name again, to the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (which kept the initials NFTE), with the tagline, Start It Up. We also decided that NFTE should be pronounced as an acronym, “Nifty,” to create an easily remembered nickname. Your name and tagline may change, but getting them right initially can have a significant bearing on your future.
Once you have defined your idea in a mission statement and named the organization that will carry your idea into the world, develop a program manual. Write it with scalable impact in mind. Describe your business, where you are located, the products and services you are providing and standards of quality. Include past marketing and sales, and projected goals.
In NFTE’s case, our first replication overseas lasted only three years. We chose a partner that had similar goals but did not have the capital to sustain the effort. We realized that without capital you cannot get things done, and we severed the relationship. Fortunately, our agreement included a clause that outlined what would happen if the relationship did not work out. Because we were careful to protect the integrity of our idea and brand it, from the start, we were able to keep all intellectual property, including our name and logo, and begin again.
5. Know Your Story and Tell It Effectively.
Every idea worth replicating has a powerful story behind it. How you introduce the motivation behind your idea will become as important as the idea itself. The story of how your organization came into existence is the frame for how you illustrate the changes it will accomplish. The story should be the driving force in your communications.
Being mugged by economically disadvantaged young men was my impetus. As a result of this experience, I sought to better the lives of at-risk youth and guide them to a pathway of economic self-sustainability. The idea resulted from a transformative change: After the mugging I suffered from PTSD. To overcome it, I decided to confront my fear of urban youth by becoming a New York City public high school teacher. I quickly lost my fear of these young people became part of the local community and became filled with a desire to teach them entrepreneurship and an ownership mind frame, so that none of them would ever have to resort to crime.
A story is compelling when it is true, told with passion and energy in a concise and easy-to-understand way, and centrally focused on human behavior. Others will need to know how your idea can help people live better lives, and why you are the person to execute it. Being able to communicate your idea to others through the media will be absolutely essential — the most successful way to do this will be through a motivational story. Developing a concise “elevator pitch,” so you can share your idea across quickly and succinctly is also important.
6. Your Unit of Change: the Numbers that Will Drive You.
For your idea to be replicated throughout the world, its effects must be measurable. Find the “unit of change” for your idea — the unit you will use to measure the effectiveness of your idea. From day one, my unit of change was the cost of the NFTE program for one child versus the loss in productivity if that child were to drop out of school.
Once you have defined your unit of change, you can perform cost/benefit analysis and use it to create a powerful public awareness message: This is the impact your idea is having. Describing the impact in economic terms will help you measure success, and drive your future funding efforts.
At present, the NFTE program cost-per-student is under $1000 annually, and the benefit of keeping a child in school and successfully equipping him or her for the workforce is over a million dollars — the estimated loss in lifetime wages for a high school dropout (per the Alliance of Excellent Education). The escalating rate of high school dropouts causes an alarming total loss of $325 billion in wages in the U.S. alone.
Knowing your unit of change lets you translate the worth of your idea to others. For NFTE graduates, street smarts become business smarts and their economic impact on the world is in the billions of dollars. You and your team should know and internalize the numbers that drive performance, and the financial implications of each choice made along the way.
Establish how you measure success, and use your measurements to promote the organization through public-relations efforts. Measuring success from the start will also incentivize your employees to further your mission, providing them with a simple and effective way to measure their impact.
Read part three here.