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Cartoon: man worshipping an idea

Beware the Cult of Ideas

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

The Cult of Ideas is a dangerous cult lurking within the field of corporate innovation. It is a disturbing cult in which members worship massive numbers of ideas above all else. On the surface, this seems a good thing. After all, innovations are founded on ideas, are they not? So, if a company wants to innovate, the more ideas it creates the better. Sadly, however, the ugly truth is that the cult of ideas can actually stifle creativity and inhibit innovation.

What is the Cult of Ideas?

The Cult of Ideas is the worship of large numbers of ideas above all else in innovation. You see it when Starbucks proudly proclaims that they have received over 100,000 ideas from their on-line suggestion web site. You see it when IBM brags of Idea Jams that generate many tens of thousands of ideas. You see it whenever a company boasts of an innovation initiative solely based on the number of ideas collected.

It is easy to understand why the Cult of Ideas has grown so powerful in recent years. Most senior managers come from analytical backgrounds, often with MBAs from prestigious university. And that background has generally served them well as they manage operations in ever more complex businesses.

Unfortunately, finding meaningful numbers in the innovation process can be tricky. Technology and pharmaceutical companies can count their patents – and many do. But patents fail to measure operational efficiency and business model innovation, which are also important. Moreover, many innovative firms take out few if any patents. The number of new products launched every year, or the income generated by products introduced in the past five years is another approach for measuring product innovation – but it also fails to recognise other forms of innovation. Moreover, a visit to any supermarket suggests we must question whether the introduction of new products truly represents innovation. A look at all the variations of Nivea shampoo products, many of which claim to be “new”, for instance, is hardly indicative of product innovation.

So managers have latched on to the counting of ideas and the assumption that lots and lots of ideas must be a good thing. This has been enhanced by innovation service providers who also espouse the notion that more ideas are better than fewer. And from this situation has grown the Cult of Ideas.

Innovation Consultants Also to Blame

The Cult of Ideas is not inhabited only by analytical senior managers. Many innovation consultants, familiar with brainstorming methodology and creative problem solving, have learned to stress the importance of generating a lot of ideas in hopes of finding a few gems. Brainstorms, for instance, are often judged by the number of ideas generated. Likewise, idea management software vendors will boast about the number of ideas their software can generate, conveniently forgetting that it is employees and not the software that generates ideas.


Why Is This a Bad Thing?

There are three reasons why it is bad to worship ideas.

Firstly, having collected 1000s of ideas is not creativity; it is an administrative nightmare. Unless you intend to ignore the ideas you collect, you need to sift through them to see if any of them are any good. At 10 minutes an idea, it would take 167 hours or 20 working days (assuming an eight hour day with no breaks) to review 1000 ideas.

Secondly, when you encourage people to spew out lots and lots of ideas, you are encouraging mediocrity over quality. People soon learn that any idea is great and several such ideas are even better. Under such circumstances, why should anyone bother to develop an idea into something truly creative. After all, that would only be one idea and, as such, would be less rewarded that a dozen absolutely boring ideas.

Thirdly, when you focus on collecting ideas, you fail to focus on implementing ideas. The long term result tends to be large numbers of ideas on suggestion scheme databases and in brainstorm reports but none on to-do lists.

Real Innovators Demonstrate Innovation

Think about it for a moment. Companies – like Gore, Google, Apple and others – that we think of as true innovators never brag about how many ideas they generate in this initiative or that initiative. Rather they demonstrate innovation. Indeed, take a look at Fast Company’s (2011) list of most innovative companies. Those on the top ten are recognised for their innovations and not for quantities of ideas.

What Can You Do?

The solution is simple. If you want to innovate, you need to innovate. This means your focus should not be on the number of ideas generated, but the value generated through implemented ideas. A million ideas will do you no good if you do not implement any of them!

In order to innovate, you need an end to end innovation plan that looks not only at idea generation, but also on focusing idea generation on strategy, evaluating ideas efficiently and developing processes to implement the more outlandish ideas that could be breakthrough innovations. You can learn more about how to develop an innovation plan in my book The Way of the Innovation Master.

Instead of simply trying to wring as many ideas as you can out of each employee, allow employees time to develop ideas. Companies like Google and 3M are famous for allowing their employees to use 20% of their time to work on personal projects. Many great ideas have come from this personal time. Indeed, Google’s founders have recently “tracked the progress of ideas that they had backed versus ideas that had been executed in the ranks without support from above, and discovered a higher success rate in the latter category.”(1)

Moreover, think about what you would like employees to be doing during that 20% of their time: generating as many ideas as they can or developing a small number of ideas into experimental projects.

Likewise, your company should not be focusing on generating as many ideas as possible. Rather it should be focusing on developing a small number of interesting ideas into trial projects.

Note

This article has been slightly revised in 2016. Since this article was first written, Google has apparently discontinued the 80/20 innovation model of allowing people to spend 20% of their time on pet projects. This article explains why.

References

1) Teresa M. Amabile and Mukti Khaire (October 2008) “Creativity and the Role of the Leader”, Harvard Business Review, http://hbr.org/2008/10/creativity-and-the-role-of-the-leader/ar/1

 


 


© 2011, 2016 creativejeffrey.com

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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium