Where Do Good Ideas Come From?

Idea Stork

I’ve come to realize that as modern professionals, we’ve largely inherited a view of leadership built on an era long gone – the industrial age.  That age taught us to value incremental improvements (make the car a color other than black!) as well as efficiency (how can we crank out 10 more axles per hour?). Our “strategic planning” efforts involving giant 50-page Word documents filled with untested assumptions are testament to the way things used to work.

The problem with all of this is, of course, increasing complexity and rate of change. This increased pace of change and knowledge creation puts us in an era where the old rules don’t cut it. Instead, we need creativity. We need ideas.

I’ve found that many modern professionals don’t know how to inspire great ideas. Instead, the knee jerk reaction is to analyze the problem until it relents. But it never does. Richard Buchanan from Carnegie Mellon University does a good job of explaining why:

“We cannot analyze our way one inch into the future, for the simple reason that the future does not exist yet, so it’s not there to analyze.”

So if we can’t analyze our way to good ideas, what are some pragmatic tips to pry open the lids of our brains and allow the creativity to ooze out? Here’s what I’ve found helpful:

  • Go beyond analysis. You knew I was going to start there. I didn’t really even have to say it. But it’s important. The industrial age left us all believing that the answer is inside the analysis; but we’ve discovered that it takes more than just unpacking problems into their pieces to make a good idea happen. In fact, it takes a dose of “synthesis” along with the analysis to make the magic happen.
  • Begin to observe and ask “why” questions. Observe your customers and their behavior; ask them why they do what they do. Do the same thing with your employees. Dive deep into how your service or product is being delivered today. Understand players in your ecosystem. We’re all connected more than ever before. You’ll be surprised what connections you find.
  • Ask “what if” questions to envision alternative future scenarios. This is where synthesis starts to bring home the bacon. It’s all about connecting things that are seemingly unrelated. Bring in many viewpoints from all over the organization. Provoke yourself and your team to think in new ways! If you sell a service, imagine it as a product on a shelf. If you are a product, imagine if you turned your business model into a service. Ask yourself and your team crazy questions without worry of constraints.
  • Filter, prioritize, and create experiments. We’re no longer cranking out Model T’s. The world moves too fast to create “strategic planning” documents riddled with untested assumptions. Instead, begin to see strategy as a series of related experiments. Create hypotheses and tests to help you learn. Create a criteria set relative to your business and hold your ideas accountable. Focus on testing a few good ideas, learn, adjust, and do it again.

We did a podcast that covered this as well. You can check it out here.

Categories: Capability, Design, Strategy, Structure

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