Cartoon - boss is obsessed with ideas

Dangerous Obsession with Ideas

The world of innovation has an unhealthy love for large quantities of ideas. Brainstorms, suggestion schemes and crowdsourcing initiatives are inevitably judged by the number of ideas collected rather than the quality of ideas, number of successfully implemented ideas or positive effect on the bottom line. This is strange. A complaint I often hear from senior managers is, "we have lots of ideas, but we lack innovation." In other words: "we are collecting too many ideas and not implementing them -- especially not the most creative ideas."

Many organisations are doing a fine job of capturing lots of ideas. Innovation managers I speak to, tell me they have databases, Excel Spreadsheets and Post-it notes full of ideas, most of which their businesses are failing to develop. Moreover, the overall quality of ideas collected is low; they are about small improvements rather than big, exciting ideas.

All of this points to two problems: an unhealthy obsession with quantity of ideas and a lack of processes for filtering, developing and implementing ideas. If we could reduce the quantity of ideas, increase the quality of ideas submitted (especially the irrelevant ones) and streamline approvals, companies the world over could innovate better.

So, why does the world of innovation have such an obsession with ideas? I believe there are three reasons.

1. The Legacy of Brainstorming

Brainstorming is the oldest structured approach to ideation and while many, including myself, feel it fails to result in truly creative ideas, it is stillone of the most widely used methods for collaborative generation of ideas. One of the key rules of brainstorming -- and it's more sophisticated sister, creative problem solving (CPS) -- is to focus on quantity of ideas. Alex Osborn, who invented brainstorming, believed that if you generated lots and lots of ideas, there had to be some creative ones in there. Indeed, brainstorm facilitators often set goals of 50 ideas or 100 ideas. Unfortunately, Mr Osborn did not come up with such a clever way of evaluating ideas and CPS tends to be weak on this too, suggesting that somehow you combine and choose the best ideas after the excitement of the brainstorm.

Because brainstorming, invented in the 1940s and written up in the 1950s, has become the standard for idea generation, many subsequently developed ideation methods follow a similar model of capturing lots of ideas and not worrying about how you might choose suitable ideas for development later.

2. Easy Metric

Executives say they love creativity and innovation (though that is debatable), but they love clear, analysable metrics even more. Unfortunately, creativity and innovation can be hard to measure in the corporate setting. Think about it. How would you quantify creativity in your organisation? How do you measure the contribution of the quiet woman working in research who dreams up and implements fantastic ideas on a daily basis, but who has migraines and is regularly out sick? It's not easy.

On the other hand, generating 120 ideas during a brainstorming retreat is a metric that sounds awfully good. Capturing over 5000 ideas on the company's suggestion scheme sounds better still. It can be put in a report, slapped onto a Powerpoint slide and boasted of in the company newsletter. It means nothing, in terms of innovation, of course. But it sounds awfully good.

3. Creativity Testing

One of the most common ways of testing individuals for creative thinking skills is to give them a relatively simple verbal challenge, such as "List as many ideas as you can of things you could do with a brick" or "How many uses for a big cardboard box can you dream up?"

Researchers can count the quantity and diversity of ideas as a means of measuring individual or team creativity. It is a relatively simple but effective test that has been used for years. However, it reinforces the idea that creativity is about quantity of ideas.

It is true that more creative people tend to dream up more ideas than less creative people. But, highly creative people also filter ideas. They have to do so. Otherwise their heads would explode!

But note the difference: ability to dream up lots of ideas as an indicator of being creative is different to a necessity to list lots of ideas in order to innovate. Consider many of the most innovative products today: Google, Facebook, iPhones, self-driving cars, gene therapy and others. These did not result from someone making a long list of invention ideas and choosing the best ideas. These came from highly creative individuals and teams chasing visions that evolved in their minds initially.

Danger of too many ideas

There are a two serious, innovation-threatening dangers inherent in having too many ideas stored away on a database or in brainstorm reports

Firstly, if your organisation has a tendency to collect lots of ideas and act on few of them, your people will soon work out that submitting ideas to the suggestion scheme or participating in a brainstorm is a waste of time. Indeed, lack of feedback on submitted ideas is an oft-heard complaint in companies that implement software based idea management or other suggestion tools. This leads to doubt about the company's commitment to innovation and management's interest in employees' ideas.

Secondly, research by the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University has shown that people tend to be biased against creativity. When given a choice of ideas to explore further, managers tend to choose moderately creative ideas over highly creative ideas. If you think about it, this makes sense. A manager has a list of 100 ideas to choose from. On the list are a few very original ideas whose value she may not initially grasp. Even if she does, she realises that it will be an uphill battle to get approval and budget to go forward with the implementation of one of the more original ideas. Implementing a incremental improvement idea will gain easier approval and be more likely to succeed.

Most likely, managers do not even consciously think this way. Subconsciously, however, they realise the better idea is not necessarily the most creative idea.

The implication here is that if your managers have a large choice of ideas to choose from, they will probably not choose the most creative ideas. Instead they will select the safe ones and leave the ceative ones in the database. That does not do your innovation programme any good.

Incidentally, I have often argued that if you really want to select the most creative idea from a list, do not ask people to choose the best idea, but rather the idea they would least like to implement.

What Can You Do?

Firstly, if you have a large backlog of ideas, process them right away. Dispose of ideas that you will not implement and take action on the ideas that have potential. Be ruthless. And be considerate. If you are disposing of an idea, send a thank you message to the person who submitted the idea. Likewise, if you are taking an idea further -- inform the idea owner. I suggest you also communicate to your entire organisation about how you are processing ideas. Many idea collection schemes lack communication to the idea submitters. Not surprisingly, this tends to frustrate idea submitters and discourages future participation.

The Right Tool for the Right Task

Brainstorming, ideas campaigns and other ideation methods that focus on quantity of ideas, rather than on quality of ideas or development of ideas, are better suited for situations where you seek and will implement a large number of small ideas. For instance, an ideas campaign seeking suggestions to reduce waste or eliminate unnecessary processes is likely to result in a large number of readily implementable suggestions. Once the campaign, or brainstorm, is completed, you can promptly assign people to take action. In no time, you can not only boast of having captured a lot of ideas, but you can also boast about their implementation and the resulting improvement of efficiency.

Anticonventional thinking (ACT) focuses on building a single creative vision and a preliminary action plan in response to a goal. Clearly, if you have one big, well developed creative vision, rather than a long list of ideas, you can move immediately towards testing and implementation. ACT is modelled on how highly creative people build visions and is better when you want to be truly creative in particular situation, such as launching a new product, reviving an existing product or looking at new business models.

Other methods, such as TRIZ and visual brainstorming are also better at working towards a single, integrated solution rather than a long list of ideas.

A Process for Creative Project Proposals

Right now, there are probably people in your organisation who have creative visions -- and not mere ideas -- for new products, new ways of doing business and new opportunities. If you have not already done so, put in place a system by which they can propose their visions to people who can evaluate and act on those visions. And be sure to acknowledge with appreciation and intelligent feedback every vision that is submitted.

Be clear, this should not be a process for submitting a simple idea. Rather, it must be a process for submitting a comprehensive creative vision. In many companies, such processes do not exist. So, motivated people with visions are all too likely to become frustrated, leave their employer and launch their own business with a vision they would have shared with if they had been given them a chance.

Remember, the world's most innovative companies do not boast about how many ideas they have. They impress the world by turning creative visions into breakthrough innovations.


Do You Have an Excess of Ideas?

Do you have an excess of ideas in your company? I expect I can help! Get in touch and let's see what we can do!



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Jeffrey Baumgartner
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Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium




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