Maximizing idea generation

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Idea generation would seem to be a pretty big topic in the working world, right? You can argue that ‘no original ideas are left’ — that’s definitely true in content marketing, baby! — or you can argue that the only way to really get at idea generation is to spend money on a software program and throw that at the problem (“We ramped up in Q2 with a digital suggestion box program” is something you could envision a senior manager saying before guffawing and rushing to a meeting about bottom-line metrics).

Thing is, there are many inaccurate perceptions on “what a company runs on,” including:

  • Margins!
  • KPIs!
  • Growth!
  • Revenue modeling!
  • Its employees! (Ha)
  • Its customers!
  • The strength of its leadership team!

In reality, companies run on basically two things:

  • The market conditions they play in
  • The ideas and products/services they bring to that market condition

There’s a lot tied up in those two bullet points, and each silo/department over-complicates it in their own way (“Marketing runs this company, baby!”) but in reality, idea generation means a lot.

So … how do we do idea generation properly?

Idea generation flaws

The first one I’d strike down is brainstorming. Brainstorming isn’t really effective at all, and that’s been proven by research.

The second one I’d murder in its sleep is “collaboration leads to great ideas.” That’s a total consultant-driven farce. Here’s the real deal: most people don’t even want to collaborate, largely because we force collaboration on people (teams) but then reward individuals — so no one can truly see the point of this whole collaboration deal. Secondly on this: most idea generation collaborative efforts occur in meetings, and typically meetings are giant time sucks where everyone talks in circles restating things that everyone already knew. Third problem here: whenever people at work ‘collaborate,’ one or two people are always left holding the bag because the rest of the collaborative group runs around screeching about the quantity of work on their plate. If you came up to me in a bar and said “Hey man, guess what? You can do a bunch more work, stay at work later, cover other people’s asses, and get no financial credit or reward whatsoever?!? You in??!!” If that happened, I’d punch you square in the face. Why do we keep chasing this idea of collaborative idea generation? It’s not there on most teams (on some, yes; but the team has to be functional in the right way).

OK, so we’ve eliminated ‘brainstorming’ and ‘collaboration’ (in most cases). Now what?

Idea generation successes

New research from Northwestern shows that persistence plays a big role in generating new ideas, noting that Dyson went through 5,127 prototypes before creating a better vacuum cleaner. (Yes, failing and rebounding from failure is crucial to idea generation at the broadest level.)

Here’s the essential summary of the Northwestern research:

The practical, take-home message is that if you reach a point in a creative task where you feel stuck, ignore that instinct — at least for a while.

“That feeling that you’ve kind of run out of ideas is inaccurate and, in a sense, shouldn’t be listened to,” Nordgren says.

One of the sets of experiments was about ‘preparing a creative Thanksgiving dinner,’ so you can kind of quibble with the results over that, sure — there really isn’t that much that hasn’t been done in terms of Thanksgiving dinner at this point. (Thanks, YouTube.)

So here’s where we stand right now:

  • Brainstorming = no
  • Collaboration = mostly no
  • Being persistent = yes

Here’s the next crucial tenet I’d add: not every single member of every single team is creative or innovative, and you know what? That’s perfectly fine. Because we deify Steve Jobs but merely respect Tim Cook, we live in a culture where “innovation!” and “entrepreneurship!” are king. There’s north of a million people doing mostly drone jobs hitting targets and deliverables like Mike Tyson in his prime, and you know what? Those people need to be celebrated too. Because if all you have are innovators, then all you have are guys and girls spouting big-picture strategy. Business is about the alignment of strategy with execution. You need some executors. Not everyone will be the creative force in the room.

So now here we go:

  • Brainstorming = no
  • Collaboration = mostly no
  • Being persistent = yes
  • Realizing diff. people fill diff. roles = yes

Now we’re getting somewhere with idea generation.

Idea generation process

If we know persistence and realization are key here, the next thing we need to tackle or understand is that if a great idea is concocted and basically just sits there, it wasn’t (by definition) a great idea — because nothing happened with it. Again, strategy is awesome — but if the strategy ain’t executed, it wasn’t a good strategy.

You need to do a little work around how to get your idea to catch on and how to get people to listen to you, yes — but in reality the process side of the idea generation flow is all about communication. If you’re pitching or talking low — -> high, meaning you need to convince someone with more formal power than you have, then you need to get this across:

  • What’s the idea? (quickly)
  • What’s the value for us? (still quickly)
  • How will it make money?
  • Who’s it trying to reach?
  • How does it fit with what we currently do?

Those are the five things, give or take, that a higher-level manager is going to give a crap about. Now, of course — the giant fly in the ointment here is that oftentimes you need to present an idea initially to your boss, who’s probably a middle manager. Middle managers are notoriously awful at judging new ideas, and research has proven that repeatedly.

To wit, then:

  • Communicate the value and purpose of your idea (Part of the reason ‘Big Data’ is still a flop at most companies)
  • Hope to God you can get an audience with someone who can at least see the monetary value and advance it off that

Idea generation: oddly, most companies are not set up to do this well — yet those same companies spend all their internal presentations deifying the companies who seemingly do it well, i.e. Apple. What the fuck?

What have you done or seen done at your company or other companies to actually drive idea generation forward?

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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