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Generating and Exploiting Ideas

June 20, 2014


“From multiple observations come ideas,” writes Harold Jarche. “From multiple ideas can come new insights.” [“From observation to breakthrough,” 28 October 2012] All innovations begin with an idea. Some people believe that generating ideas is difficult; but, in reality, people generate ideas all the time. Unfortunately, ideas quickly fade if they are not captured and recorded for future use. As I have noted in past posts about brainstorming, people have a difficult time holding on to more than one idea. That’s why people on their own can generate more ideas than they can in a group. In a traditional brainstorming session, people try to hold on to an idea they want to present while listening to others’ ideas instead of capturing that idea and moving on to new ones. I recommend that individuals write down as many ideas as they can before they start listening and participating. I’ve also noted that the most creative people are also the most curious and the most observant. They see things and ask questions. And, just as importantly, they make notes about the ideas that such observations generate. That’s my formula for creativity: Be Observant + Ask Questions + Record Ideas = Creativity.


Creativity gurus offer any number of frameworks for generating ideas; but, I believe they all basically involve the three steps noted above. Jarche, for example, discusses a personal knowledge management framework that can be used to foster “routine behaviors that we can practice and perfect in order to enhance learning and innovation.” That framework involves seeking, sensing, and sharing. He also discusses a framework developed by Gunther Sonnenfeld called The Great Planning Paradigm. That framework involves observing, generating ideas, gaining insights, and developing stories that explain beliefs that can lead to breakthroughs. In other words, Sonnenfeld suggests that people need to be observant, be curious, and persevere. Tapha Ngum writes, “The strangest thing about the process of generating ideas, is that there seems to be a commonly held belief that it is some sort of mystical process, one that is only reserved for the likes of ‘visionaries’ and mad scientists. There is this idea that those kinds of people are the only ones who can come up with great ideas consistently, and even then, only after ‘waiting’ for ‘inspiration’ to strike. This belief is held despite the fact that there are many people who have said outright (and show through their output), that they work hard and sweat for their ideas.” [“How to Consistently Come Up with Great Ideas,” Lifehack, 11 December 2012]


We all know that some people are more naturally curious than others — just like some people are more outgoing than others. But we can all learn to be more observant and more curious. Ngum repeats a quote from an interview that Steve Jobs once gave to Wired magazine that underscores the importance of being observant, curious, and putting things together. Jobs stated:

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.”

Ngum asserts that the best place to start is by taking notice when something unexpected occurs. Why was it unexpected? Was the result good or bad? What could be done differently to obtain a different outcome? Ngum writes, “You can apply this concept to any field to help you generate ideas.” She continues:

“The unexpected success is what you are to spot and then understand in order to create your own great ideas. They are the seeds of great ideas. If you are able to notice an unexpected success and then find out why it succeeded then you will be able to capitalize on it by generating an idea that utilizes the fundamental reasons why the unexpected success succeeded.”

Anna Farmery writes, “Ideas are the fuel that drive our economy.” And, she notes, that even though “94% of people think creativity is vital, only 35% believe they have the skills and processes to deliver them.” [“How to Build Your Own Idea Refinery,” The Engaging Brand, 27 November 2012] She insists that we can all generate more ideas if we just develop a “treasure hunt mindset.” Such a mindset develops in us a “desire to keep looking, keep reading, keep learning, keep sharing … looking for the hidden treasure.” In other words, we need to rediscover the curiosity we all had as small children. The advantage we have now that we didn’t have then is that we can write down or record our ideas. In other words, put that personal assistant in your smartphone to work. Capturing your ideas, however, is only a first step. Like Steve Jobs asserted, you need to be able to organize those ideas in a meaningful way (i.e., connect the dots). If you are part of company team, Nadia Goodman suggests that you formalize the way you capture and organize your ideas. [“4 Ways to Organize New Ideas and Drive Innovation,” Entrepreneur, 4 December 2012] She writes, “To create a culture that fosters innovation, organize new ideas in a way that empowers you to act on them.” Tim Meaney, CEO of Kindling, told Goodman, “People stop participating in an innovation community without active decision-making and transparency. People are too busy to speak into the void.” That’s why you need to formalize the idea generation process.


As the headline for her article suggests, Goodman offers four suggestions about how to formalize the idea generation and exploitation process. Her first suggestion is to create a central space for idea generation. She explains, “Start by creating a central space where you collect and share ideas. Make sure you’re using a dynamic tool, with built-in opportunities for collaboration and feedback.” It’s clear from her comments that she defines the term “space” as a central repository for ideas. She recommends adopting tools that permit inputs from both internal and external sources. Both employees and customers have ideas about your products or services. The larger the company and the wider the array of products and services offered the more important it becomes to organize the ideas that are generated. Goodman’s second suggestion is to label your lists of ideas. She writes:

“To keep ideas clearly organized, streamline them by topic. You might set up broad categories, such as ‘customer requested features,’ or specific ones tailored to a project or goal. Breaking ideas into smaller groups helps you process and select the ones that best suit your business. Labeled lists also create a framework for people to think about new ideas, especially if they’re tied to specific projects or goals. The list titles serve as prompts, which help spur creativity and lead to more novel suggestions.”

The only caveat I would add is that you should ensure that these lists can be easily cross-referenced. Remember that connecting the dots requires does not require that all the dots are found in the same location. A good idea filed under one topic might be a good idea for improving a product or service in a completely different area. Goodman’s next suggestion involves ensuring that lists are updated and active. She writes:

“For each list of ideas, establish a point person who will take ownership — someone who is an integral part of the team that would act on those ideas. For example, ideas to improve your website’s infrastructure need to be collected and owned by the team responsible for maintaining it. ‘This is probably the most important aspect of a well-functioning innovation program — a motivated and empowered person or small team who will see ideas through to a decision,’ Meaney says.”

Goodman’s final suggestion involves being proactive. She explains:

“To prevent a backlog of ideas, address each one as quickly as possible. Dismiss the ideas that are definitely not viable, then move any that have potential into specific follow-up categories. Some may need immediate action while others may need more input before you can make a decision.”

If contributors never receive feedback about their ideas, it won’t take long before they become “former” contributors. If ideas aren’t used, contributors should be told why they weren’t acted upon. This kind of feedback will help them craft ideas more in line with what is sought without discouraging them from contributing further. In the end, every company wants to generate ideas that can help them succeed in business’ changing landscape. Encouraging employees to be a bit more observant and curious is a good place to start.

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