21 Sep

Would you say you were an ideas person?

 Someone who finds it enjoyable to think up new things to solve thorny problems?

Or perhaps a hunch person referring to the notion that most innovative ideas are not sudden flashes of inspiration, but rather slow and gradual developments that take time to come to fruition. A nod to the excitement about AI here.

Or perhaps you trawl social media and look for inspiration from others to combine ideas to help you solve your pressing problem? Who hasn't took a sneak at Instagram or YouTube for inspirational thought?Or maybe you prefer others to generate the ideas while you take on the role of the observer or executor of the idea in action.

Adjacency is often enough.

Next time you see a pushchair neatly folded into a car boot you may be surprised to know the 'idea' came from how wheels on a British fighter plane during WW2 were retracted during flight. (1)

And there is the wonderful example of aid agencies distributed mosquito nets to poor people in Africa in an effort to control the incidence of malaria. However, instead of using them as mosquito nets many turned them into fishing nets. (2)

Yes, but.

And if you can recall a good idea how was it communicated with others? Were you so in control of the process that the news was well managed and received positively? Or did you get caught out by the level of interest as your idea started to take hold? Were there trust issues to deal with and did the story get obfuscated as it travelled across the business?Barriers and conflict are the anathema to ideas and creative thinking. They rarely stand up and be counted in clear light. They lurk. They fester. We know who represents them. Perhaps we do. And they are always there ready to pounce by saying things like 'we haven't completed the last project, why start this now' or 'nothing good comes out of this approach, lets stick to what we know'.

The difficulty lies not in the new ideas, but in escaping the old ones - JOHN MAYNARD KEYNES

And what about the mistakes you made along the way? Because you will have made some. Did you keep them close to your chest or share them openly as part of the learning process.

Ideas are messy.

Simply because ideas are not smooth lines on a page or graceful contrails in the sky.They are messy and can stand or fall on much more than the idea itself. And when we are looking at generating fresh ideas as part of our jobs, whether we are paid to or not, knowing how ideas flow and what can stop them or reshape them can be the deal breaker.Ideas rarely pop up as Eureka! moments. They meander along collecting more relevance as they go. Like driftwood in a river. They often get caught up by detritus along the way. consigned to the wilderness until one day you give them a shake and off they float again. Commercially we may enshrine these ideas in patents, protecting ourselves from others and investing in a future when one day they can become 'something'.

Ideas keep us alive.

They keep us safe and help us grow. We are often seduced by ideas that consume our energy and cash even when they turn out to be bad ones. We may pour countless sums of money into ideas that others - and eventually ourselves - will claim 'would never work'. We can't help ourselves basically. It is part of being human and is one thing that separates us from other species on the planet. Or does it?

We love ideas people.

People with titles such as Chief Innovation Officer, Lead Designer or CEO earn their crust because they are good at coming up ideas and inspiring others to do so. Think back to annual sales conferences, roadshows and think tank events. 

The ultimate ideas smorgasbord. 

And in a nod to a previous employer (IBM) there was an elite group of people called 'Wild Ducks' who most certainly were paid to be 'ideas people'.If we are paid to generate ideas we can probably answer with confidence my question that follows. We might be generating fresh original ideas at a breathtaking pace. When asked we might answer 'do you mean just today?'. But for the majority of us where there will be a moment in time when we are asked to contribute to an ideas discussion recalling our last good idea might take some thought.

What was your last good idea?

To clarify a good idea is something you 'came up with' that make a tangible difference to your life. It could be personal or business. It might have made you money, saved you time or more dramatically, helped someone in dire straits. Technology may have been involved or not.Now think about how you came up with the idea. Was is it in the spur of the moment - like many are I suspect - or did you wrestle with a problem, trying different ideas until you came upon the 'one'. Did the idea bubble along for quite a long time as you tended to other priorities? 

Or was there the 'eureka' moment when your idea aligned with the problem and success ensued?Did you work alone? Can you hand on heart claim total ownership of the idea as yours? Or were you part of a team? Your partner maybe? A group of friends ?Or in your community? Even though we might think so we rarely travel alone when coming up with ideas.

innovation is not a solitary process, but rather a collaborative one that relies on the exchange of ideas and the development of new networks.' - STEVEN JOHNSON

Your idea. Can you think back to the journey it went on. Was it all clear and concise with collective agreement and sponsorship? Or did you hit bumps in the road? How did these bumps occur, by whom and what did you have to do to get your idea across to doubting voices?And if you are struggling with identifying a good idea try thinking back to the bad ideas you have come up with. Sometimes we can much easily identify the bad ones to shock us into recalling the good ones.

Ideas and the world of work.

Take a moment.

Maybe it was the introduction of a simple work task that simplified the way you and colleagues and customers work together. The pandemic must have been a hothouse of good ideas I'm sure. A few bad ones too. 

Or perhaps the idea was a 'biggie' that required much soul searching, a lot of 'pain before gain' and required a huge investment in technology and changing working practice.And if you were someone with the expectation of ideas generation baked into your compensation how was it for you? Could you look back on a healthy year of fresh creative ideas that for the large part made a tangible and sustainable difference to your business? And what about if you were selling ideas? As a consultant perhaps. Did your customers take up your ideas as their own? Or did you find it hard work to get traction? Were there too many competing forces working against your inspiration?

The Good Ideas Audit.

I did this recently with a group of leaders. 

I didn't plan to - it was an idea. 

A spur of the moment hunch.

The context for the meeting was a session to inspire innovative thought. A session that had a wide open remit to explore pretty much anything. A session that was framed as not just out of the box, but that 'there is no box'.And like many of these creative sessions it was going really well. The wall were glistening with ideas. Like fresh paint on a door you could smell the innovation with a high degree of confidence around the room that they 'were on to something big'.In my work I often have to be the 'nagging disrupter'. A pain the backside cynic at times. 

So I challenged them to use that last few minutes before their congratulatory lunch to ask themselves inwardly the question 'when was the last good idea in your area of responsibility'.I framed it slightly by asking them to consider not just the idea itself but the way the idea came about - the source itself. 

Was it from their own creative juices, a colleague or from someone outside their world, or did it come from a combination of things that had happened? The classic curve ball event that needed resolution. And I asked them to consider how they know it was a good idea. What proof did they have at the time? And does that proof still hold true today.And then we stood back and looked at what we had.

Retrospectively I say.

I must say it was fascinating.Three things came out strongly.

Firstly, they struggled individually to come up with a genuine good idea. They could recall lots of ideas that started then stalled, or ideas that were cut short because they were failing. Lots of pilots and prototypes. However, when they were paired up with a colleague things picked up. An element of competitiveness perhaps?

Secondly, when nudged many people admitted the good ideas were not their own work but that of others. Some people couldn't honestly lay a finger on who but they admitted they would reach out and look for inspiration from wherever they could. When pushed on this they were able to point to pressures of time and performance to take ideas from anywhere.

Finally, there was consensus that the best ideas were those that came from serendipity. The water cooler moments. I got them to admit that every time they tried to 'hard code' ideas generation into events and workshops the buzz and excitement would eventually fade away. Post creative fog.

The wisdom of crowds.

I have a lot of sympathy, respect and empathy for people who are paid to be 'ideas people'. It can be a lonely world. Even though you might be surrounded by teams of researchers and creative souls, the hard work is not the idea itself but the journey the idea must go through. You might own the space where ideas can flourish and grow but it is a very different prospect when that idea has to go out into the 'wild'. 

Will it ever come back to you? 

Will it get interfered with and be pushed out of shape? 

Will people maliciously or otherwise derail your inspiration for their own gain or agenda?

And in your own circumspect review of the history of your ideas how many times did other people get in your way? Positively or otherwise? Why is that do you think? Is there a pattern? Corporate culture? Individual leader or team member? Physical constraint? And knowing all of this how do you approach your new 'good' idea? Or do you try again hoping 'this time' it will be OK.

My point with the management team was not that they weren't able to come up with good ideas. It was not my place to be judge and jury on that. I was saying though that they way they allow good ideas to flow around themselves as leaders and their wider teams might be a barrier.Understanding how a good idea (and a bad one) flows across an organisation is an interesting moment of pause. For many ideas seem to come and go. We treat them with a mixture of surprise and doubt. To some they threaten the status quo (our jobs at times ) whilst to others they represent fresh opportunity to press on. 

The Good Ideas Audit is an event. Something to disrupt thinking long enough to understand the idea flow in any organisation. To be honest and reflect that ideas often stall because of XYZ. Or they flourish when XYZ is present.

Courage is what I'm talking about.

For a business leader a Good Ideas Audit takes courage.You can be accused of looking back and not forward. People might consider you hesitant to what is coming next.

I say courageous because whilst ideas are the lifeblood of human existence and corporate survival things are not as clear cut.

Courageous because good ideas do not come from where we think and many with egos and reputations to protect will push back strongly if you suggest otherwise.

Courage to accept the wisdom of strangers. People who do not fit the perception of 'ideas people' yet offer a different perspective to shake the beliefs and assumptions.

Courage to admit ideas is a messy feature of business - and life.

They have to be, right?


(1) Owen Finlay MacLaren - inventor of the collapsible buggy.

(2) https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/25/world/africa/mosquito-nets-for-malaria-spawn-new-epidemic-overfishing.html#:~:text=1%2F13-,Fishermen%20used%20a%20mosquito%20net%20to%20catch%20juvenile%20catfish%20in,environmental%20threat%20to%20fishing%20stocks.&text=Mosquito%20nets%20wind%20up%20having,soccer%20goal%20in%20Lagosa%2C%20Tanzania

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