Where Good Ideas Come From

Where good ideas come from

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Fundamental to the process of innovation is the creation of good ideas. But what separates a good idea from a bad idea? In what type of environment do good ideas prosper? And should ideas be shared or kept proprietary? This article, which forms part three of our digital transformation series, looks at where good ideas come from. In the process, we’ll debunk some of the myths around ideation and discuss how organisations can shape ideas.

…to succeed in business, you don’t have to be right – you simply have to be less dumb than your competitors.

Rory Sutherland, Ogilvy1

Introduction

Look at any architect’s website, and more often than not, there will be mention of innovation and collaboration. Meetings and brainstorming sessions are held to tap into the collective mind. (Although to be fancy, we sometimes refer to the sessions as charrettes). We take it for granted that this approach is best for generating good ideas. After all, many minds are better than one. But is this really the case?

Research into where good ideas come from often contradicts conventional wisdom. As the late Clayton Christensen suggests, “a dearth of good ideas is rarely the core problem…the problem is in the shaping process.”2 From the way we discuss ideas, through to the type of people we discuss those ideas with, all have a role to play in seeing those ideas successfully come to fruition.

When we all think alike, no one thinks very much.

Walter Lippmann3

The myth of Eureka moments

When people think about where good ideas come from, they tend to imagine Archimedes in the bathtub shouting “Eureka”. However, in the early 1990s, psychologist Kevin Dunbar showed that eureka moments were rarities. By watching laboratory researchers at work, his research found that most important ideas emerged during regular lab meetings, where a dozen or so researchers would gather and informally present and discuss their work. The group environment helped recontextualise problems, as colleagues’ questions forced researchers to think about their experiments on a different scale or level.4 Good ideas are, therefore, more likely to happen around the water cooler or meeting rooms than in isolation.

Eureka vs Water cooler
Eureka moment vs Water cooler

Why brainstorming doesn’t work

Most people will be familiar with ‘brainstorming’ – the process by which many people contribute ideas. The approach was pioneered by the advertising executive Alex Osborn in the late 1930s.5 However, study after study has shown that individuals working alone generate better solutions than groups brainstorming aloud.

Brainstorming process
Typical brainstorming process6

The psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel prize for this work on decision-making and cognitive biases, explains that “the standard practice of open discussion gives too much weight to the opinions of those who speak early and assertively, causing others to line up behind them.”Instead, he recommends that “before an issue is discussed, all members of the committee should be asked to write a very brief summary of their position.” Jake Knapp, the creator of the Design Sprint, agrees with Kahneman’s findings.8 He proposes the concept of ‘working alone together’ to assist the ideation process.

Alternative ideation process
Alternative ideation process10

Avoiding groupthink & echo chambers

But working alone together is not enough. You must have a diverse range of ideas to avoid groupthink and echo chambers. The philosopher David Weinberger discusses the importance of cognitive diversity. He suggests that too much commonality leads to groupthink while too little commonality leads to wheel-spinning.”11 The trick is to have just enough diversity.

Cognitive diversity
Cognitive diversity

In the 1990s, a Stanford Business School professor named Martin Ruef decided to investigate the relationship between business innovation and diversity. His research showed that the most creative individuals had broad social networks that extended outside their organization and involved people from diverse fields of expertise.12 In groups united by shared values and long-term familiarity, conformity and convention tended to dampen any potential creative sparks. Cognitive diversity, therefore, trumps ability when assembling teams.13

Conformity towards homogeneity

To better appreciate how conformity and convergence can result in homogeneity, consider concept car design. Steve Jobs explained it best:

You go to an auto show and see some glamorous and widely innovative concept car on display and you think, ‘I’d buy that in a second.’ And then five years later, the car finally comes to market and its been whittled down from a Ferrari to a Pinto – all the truly breakthrough features have been toned down or eliminated altogether, and what’s left looks mostly like last year’s model.

Steve Jobs14

What Steve Jobs is describing, of course, is the process of gradually chipping away an original idea at each step in the decision-making process. In the end, the original design has been watered down beyond recognition. It becomes design by consensus.

Kia Futuron concept car
Kia Futuron concept car15

Industry convergence

In addition to in-house ideas converging, we see convergence across entire industries. In Adrian Hanft article, ‘The Zombie-mobile’, he describes how car manufactures want to blend in rather than stand out:

They have the same bunch of cars, the same sizes, same cookie cutter as everyone else and they are all built using the same process… It’s the same process, it’s the same cost structure, it’s the same quality. So you can’t differentiate anymore.

Adrian Hanft16
Zombie Mobile
Zombie Mobile17

Some may argue that the cars presented above, do in fact, look different. I would disagree. But the point remains that conformity and convergence result in (greater) homogeneity. This tendency is one reason why some advertising executives recommend not listening to the customer. Customers don’t like to think, and if you go along with this, it means offering the same product as everyone else.18 It goes without saying, therefore, that to be innovative, you must think differently.

Creating noise

It’s all well and good to have cognitively diverse teams, but if individuals aren’t empowered to share their ideas, there will still be a convergence towards the norm. Within the workplaces, many employees avoid speaking out for fear of marginalisation. But in her research on the power of dissent, Charlan Nemeth, a Berkeley psychology professor, demonstrated that “good ideas are more likely to emerge in environments that contain a certain amount of noise and error.”19 The findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas; instead, they stimulate them. When conducted with curiosity and respect, criticism becomes the most advanced form of creativity.20 

When conducted with curiosity and respect, criticism becomes the most advanced form of creativity

Roberto Verganti and Don Norman

The adjacent possible

If working alone together and diversity are key to better ideas, what makes a good idea? Steven Johnson, in his book, ‘Where good ideas come from: The natural history of innovation’, dissects many of these topics. Johnson suggests that “good ideas are not conjured out of thin air; they are built out of a collection of existing parts, the composition of which expands (and, occasionally, contracts) over time. Some of those parts are conceptual: ways of solving problems, or new definitions of what constitutes a problem in the first place.”21 

In referencing the scientist Stuart Kauffman’s work, Johnson introduces the concept of the ‘adjacent possible’. He suggests that “the trick is to figure out ways to explore the edges of possibility that surround you. This can be as simple as changing the physical environment you work in, cultivating a specific kind of social network, or maintaining certain habits in the way you seek and store information.”22

Connecting ideas

Many organisations go to great lengths to prevent ideas from disseminating beyond their organisation. They go by different names: Patents, intellectual property, trade secrets, proprietary technology. But as Johnson explains, they all share the assumption that “innovation will increase if you put restrictions on new ideas, because those restrictions will allow the creators to collect large financial rewards…which then attract other innovators to follow in their path.”23 However, Johnson argues that contrary to conventional wisdom, we are better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them:

 …when you look at innovation from the long-zoom perspective, competition turns out to be less central to the history of good ideas than we generally think. Analyzing innovation on the scale of individuals and organizations – as the standard textbooks do – distorts our view. It creates a picture of innovation that overstates the role of proprietary research and ‘survival of the fittest’ competition.

Steven Johnson24

Therefore, environments that build walls around good ideas tend to be less innovative in the long run than more open-ended environments.

Connecting ideas

Liquid networks

As we’ve seen, good ideas are not conjured out of thin air. They take time to evolve and mature. Moreover, they need an environment where those partial ideas can connect. As such, how professionals capture, nurture, share, and recycle their collective knowledge is one of the biggest challenges facing organisations and vital to their success. Weinberger advocates for an open ecology of knowledge. He suggests, “as knowledge becomes networked, the smartest person in the room is the room itself: the network that joins the people and ideas in the room, and connects to those outside of it…Our task is to learn how to build smart rooms – that is, how to build networks that make us smarter…”.25

It is in the nature of good ideas to stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before them, which means that by some measure, every important innovation is fundamentally a network affair.

Steven Johnson26

In addition to fostering liquid networks of knowledge, organisations must also capture existing ideas. Simply writing ideas down and allowing those ideas to be accessible builds an information network that enables hunches to persist and disperse and recombine.27 Indeed, it is one of the many reasons that we at Parametric Monkey write articles like this. It allows us to capture ideas, re-visit ideas, and hopefully generate even better ideas.

Enabling slack

In order to share knowledge, organisations must allow employees the time to do so. This requirement means not being at 100% capacity, all day, every day. To be more innovative, you need to do less, not more. Google is arguably the most famous for embracing this philosophy.

This requirement means not being at 100% capacity, all day, every day.

Back in 2004, Google instituted a “20% time” program for all Google engineers. This initiative enabled employees to spend up to 20% working on their project, guided entirely by their passions and instincts. Over 50% of Google’s new products are derived from the innovation time-off hunches.

Apple vs Google
Apple vs Google

Other organisations have been quick to follow suit, such as 3M, who implemented a 15% rule.28 This is a far cry from the typical framework of writing a proposal and gaining management approval before an employee can spend any time on the initiative. While some have questioned Google’s 20% approach29, bottom-up empowerment is not the only way forward. As Apple continually demonstrate, an innovation culture can also be established via a more top-down alignment.

Conclusion

As we’ve seen, where good ideas come from is often counter-intuitive. The process of coming up with good ideas is rarely the problem. Instead, the challenge stems from how those ideas are shaped. When forming an innovation strategy, we recommend implementing four simple guidelines:

  1. Assemble participants with diverse expertise & backgrounds;
  2. Ditch the brainstorming sessions for working alone together;
  3. Create an environment where ideas can be shared and challenged (without negative repercussions); and,
  4. Enable slack for ideas to emerge and develop.

By following these guidelines, organisations can drastically improve their odds of success by coming up with good ideas and seeing them through to fruition. In our next article on digital transformation, we’ll discuss how organisations can structure their decision-making.

Interested in finding out more? Drop us a line and discover how we can help your organisation do better things.

References

1  Ferrier, A. (2014). The advertising effect: How to change behaviour. Oxford University Press, Melbourne, p.13.

2 Christensen, C. & Raynor, M. (2003). The innovator’s solution: Creating and sustaining successful growth. Harvard Business Review Press, Boston, p.11.

3 Lippmann, W. (1915). The stakes of diplomacy. Henry Holt and Company, New York, p.51.

4 Dunbar, K. (1997). How scientists think: On-line creativity and conceptual change in science. In Ward, T. el al (Eds.), Creative thought: An investigation of conceptual structures and processes, pp.461–493, American Psychological Association.

5 Osborn, A. (1963). Applied imagination: Principles and procedures of creative problem solving. Scribner, New York. In Johnson, S. (2010). Where good ideas come from: The natural history of innovation. Riverhead Books, New York, p.126.

6 Knapp, J. (2016). Sprint: How to solve big problems and test new ideas in just five days. Bantam Press, London, p.128.

7 Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Penguin Books, Great Britain, p.85.

8 Knapp, J. (30 Dec 2016). Stop brainstorming and start sprinting. Medium.

9 Knapp, J. (2016). Sprint: How to solve big problems and test new ideas in just five days. Bantam Press, London, p.107.

10 Knapp, J. (2016). Sprint: How to solve big problems and test new ideas in just five days. Bantam Press, London, p.128.

11 Weinberger, D. (2011). Too big to know: Rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren’t the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room. Basic Books, New York, p.77.

12 Ruef, M. (2002). Strong ties, weak ties and islands: Structural and cultural predictors of organizational innovation. Industrial and Corporate Change 11, no. 3. In Johnson, S. (2010). Where good ideas come from: The natural history of innovation. Riverhead Books, New York, p.166.

13 Page, S. (2007). The difference: How the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools and societies. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

14 Jobs, S. In Johnson, S. (2010). Where good ideas come from: The natural history of innovation. Riverhead Books, New York, p.170.

15 Kia. (5 Nov 2019). Futuron concept: The future electric vehicle.

16 Hanft, A. (4 Oct 2015). The zombie-mobile. Medium.

17 Hanft, A. (4 Oct 2015). The zombie-mobile. Medium.

18 Ferrier, A. & Flemming, J. (2020). Stop listening to the customer: Try hearing your brand instead. John Wiley & Sons, Brisbane, p.57.

19 Nemeth, C. (1995). Dissent as driving cognition, attitudes and judgement. Social cognition 13, no. 3, pp.273-291. In Johnson, S. (2010). Where good ideas come from: The natural history of innovation. Riverhead Books, New York, p.142.

20 Verganti, R. & Norman, D. (16 July 2019). Why criticism is good for creativity. Harvard Business Review Press, Boston.

21 Johnson, S. (2010). Where good ideas come from: The natural history of innovation. Riverhead Books, New York, p.35.

22 Johnson, S. (2010). Where good ideas come from: The natural history of innovation. Riverhead Books, New York, p.41.

23 Johnson, S. (2010). Where good ideas come from: The natural history of innovation. Riverhead Books, New York, pp.123-24.

24 Johnson, S. (2010). Where good ideas come from: The natural history of innovation. Riverhead Books, New York, p.21.

25 Weinberger, D. (2011). Too big to know: Rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren’t the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room. Basic Books, New York, p.xiii.

26 Johnson, S. (2010). Where good ideas come from: The natural history of innovation. Riverhead Books, New York, p.221.

27 Johnson, S. (2010). Where good ideas come from: The natural history of innovation. Riverhead Books, New York, p.127.

28 Christensen, C. & Raynor, M. (2003). The innovator’s solution: Creating and sustaining successful growth. Harvard Business Review Press, Boston, p.24.

29 Schrage, M. (20 Aug 2013). Just how valuable is Google’s “20% time”? Harvard Business Review Press, Boston.

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