Critical Mass of Ideas: A myth debunked

One of my favorite leadership myths is that to have a few great ideas you need to generate a lot of ideas. It’s intuitive; we’ve heard it somewhere in the folklore of management training, and we’ve all been in brainstorms where we’ve probably created at least 100 ideas on Post-It Notes™ and ended up working on one.

A glut of ideas

Wouldn't it be great to get more great ideas from the outset?

We’ve also seen suggestion boxes and the statistics tell us that less than 10% (and I’m being really generous here) of what comes in is of any value and gets implemented. And we’re not even hitting the management headache that technology can bring with 10,000+ ideas that need processing.

The evidence is stacking up and telling us that this is fact – that to get a few good ideas you need to generate many.

But hang on – is this the best way to approach innovation in the 21st Century? Invite a bunch of people to a brainstorming session, or get them to submit ideas to an online suggestion box and just ask them to come up with some stuff? Oh, and try to think outside the box!

Let’s really look at the evidence: A lot of ideas beget a few good ones. With so few defining parameters and insights, is it any wonder we end up with lots of ideas we can’t use and maybe one or two that are any good? It’s not that the other 98/99 weren’t any good – they just never started out in the right direction.

Why don’t we let anyone know what kind of ideas we are looking for in the first place? That would be cheating, right? You might lose that valuable out-of-the-box thinking.

There is a smarter way. It’s counter-intuitive, but actually framing your needs and presenting insights well is absolutely critical for any long-term successful engagement. Not only does it improve the quality of the ideas you get, it also significantly reduces the number of irrelevant and untimely ideas.

This has huge implications: you end up picking the best of the best, instead of those that got near your requirements. If they are qualified out at a later stage, you still have many more good ideas you can develop.

Best of all you save time, energy and effort in so many places – from review teams who don’t have to view hundreds or thousands of irrelevant content, to communities who don’t get annoyed at giving you great ideas you don’t need.

But hold on – leaders “know” that to have a few great ideas you need loads – so what happens when you start doing things smarter? You’ve got to prepare them – otherwise you will get that panic call when they can see the numbers just aren’t adding up. So sharing these new statistics can really work, as do stories from other leaders who know there is a smarter way.

This isn’t an experiment. We’ve cracked the code on this – but it’s the best-kept secret between those leaders who know how and those who live and die by the myth.

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