Your newsletter on applied creativity, imagination, ideas and innovation in
Wednesday 4 May 2011
Hello and welcome to another issue of Report 103, your twice-monthly (or thereabouts)
newsletter on creativity, imagination, ideas and innovation in business.
As always, if you have news about creativity, imagination, ideas, or innovation
please feel free to forward it to me for potential inclusion in Report103. Your
comments and feedback are also always welcome.
Information on unsubscribing, archives, reprinting articles, etc can be found
at the end of this newsletter.
JEFFREY IS ON TWITTER: @creativeJeffrey
I have been playing with Twitter the past few weeks and am still trying to
1) find my voice there and 2) ensure I add mostly meaningful noise to an already
very noisy place. My Twitter name is CreativeJeffrey and you can find me at
BEWARE THE CULT OF IDEAS
The Cult of Ideas is a dangerous cult lurking within the field of corporate
innovation. It is a disturbing cult in which members worship massive numbers
of ideas above all else. On the surface, this seems a good thing. After all,
innovations are founded on ideas, are they not? So, if a company wants to innovate,
the more ideas it creates the better. Sadly, however, the ugly truth is that
the cult of ideas can actually stifle creativity and inhibit innovation.
What is the Cult of Ideas?
The Cult of Ideas is the worship of large numbers of ideas above all else in
innovation. You see it when Starbucks proudly proclaims that they have received
over 100,000 ideas from their on-line suggestion web site. You see it when IBM
brags of Idea Jams that generate many tens of thousands of ideas. You see it
whenever a company boasts of an innovation initiative solely based on the number
of ideas collected.
It is easy to understand why the Cult of Ideas has grown so powerful in recent
years. Most senior managers come from analytical backgrounds, often with MBAs
from prestigious university. And that background has generally served them well
as they manage operations in ever more complex businesses.
Unfortunately, finding meaningful numbers in the innovation process can be
tricky. Technology and pharmaceutical companies can count their patents –
and many do. But patents fail to measure operational efficiency and business
model innovation, which are also important. Moreover, many innovative firms
take out few if any patents. The number of new products launched every year,
or the income generated by products introduced in the past five years is another
approach for measuring product innovation – but it also fails to recognise
other forms of innovation. Moreover, a visit to any supermarket suggests we
must question whether the introduction of new products truly represents innovation.
A look at all the variations of Nivea shampoo products, many of which claim
to be “new”, for instance, is hardly indicative of product innovation.
So managers have latched on to the counting of ideas and the assumption that
lots and lots of ideas must be a good thing. This has been enhanced by innovation
service providers who also espouse the notion that more ideas are better than
fewer. And from this situation has grown the Cult of Ideas.
Innovation Consultants Also to Blame
The Cult of Ideas is not inhabited only by analytical senior managers. Many
innovation consultants, familiar with brainstorming methodology and creative
problem solving, have learned to stress the importance of generating a lot of
ideas in hopes of finding a few gems. Brainstorms, for instance, are often judged
by the number of ideas generated. Likewise, idea management software vendors
will boast about the number of ideas their software can generate, conveniently
forgetting that it is employees and not the software that generates ideas.
Why Is This a Bad Thing?
Why is the Cult of Ideas a bad thing? Of course ideas in their own right are
not bad at all. I should know, I have lots of them myself. So many, I sometimes
want to switch them off. Indeed, it used to concern my girlfriend that I would
always come up with ideas about new businesses to launch, new activities to
do and new paths to follow. These ideas worried her. Surely, she thought, it
could not be a good thing for me to do so many things or to throw away everything
I have done professionally in order to follow some whim. But as she has come
to know me, she has learned that I have even more ideas than she has shoes.
She knows that I will talk about an idea today and forget about it tomorrow.
So, today, she smiles knowingly whenever I announce a crazy idea and only begins
to worry when I continue to talk about an idea for an extended period of time.
Nevertheless, she reminds me from time to time, that my ideas can easily become
a distraction from getting anything productive done.
She is right of course (but for goodness sakes, don’t tell her I said
that!). Moreover, the same thing is true for companies. If they measure innovation
by the number of ideas generated and focus too much on generating lots of ideas,
rather than implementing ideas, they fail to get anything productive done. But,
of course, innovation is not about ideas, it is about being productive with
those ideas. It is about implementing them and generating value.
Real Innovators Demonstrate Innovation
Think about it for a moment. Companies – like Gore, Google, Apple and
others – that we think of as true innovators never brag about how many
ideas they generate in this initiative or that initiative. Rather they demonstrate
innovation. Indeed, take a look at Fast Company’s list of most innovative
companies (http://www.fastcompany.com/most-innovative-companies/2011/). Those
on the top ten are recognised for their innovations and not for quantities of
What Can You Do?
The solution is simple. If you want to innovate, you need to innovate. This
means your focus should not be on the number of ideas generated, but the value
generated through implemented ideas. A million ideas will do you no good if
you do not implement any of them!
In order to innovate, you need an end to end innovation plan that looks not
only at idea generation, but also on focusing idea generation on strategy, evaluating
ideas efficiently and developing processes to implement the more outlandish
ideas that could be breakthrough innovations. You can learn more about how to
develop an innovation plan in my book The Way of the Innovation Master (see
Instead of simply trying to wring as many ideas as you can out of each employee,
allow employees time to develop ideas. Companies like Google and 3M are famous
for allowing their employees to use 20% of their time to work on personal projects.
Many great ideas have come from this personal time. Indeed, Google’s founders
have recently “tracked the progress of ideas that they had backed versus
ideas that had been executed in the ranks without support from above, and discovered
a higher success rate in the latter category.”(1)
Moreover, think about what you would like employees to be doing during that
20% of their time: generating as many ideas as they can or developing a small
number of ideas into experimental projects.
Likewise, your company should not be focusing on generating as many ideas as
possible. Rather it should be focusing on developing a small number of interesting
ideas into trial projects.
1) Teresa M. Amabile and Mukti Khaire (October 2008) “Creativity and the
Role of the Leader”, Harvard Business Review, http://hbr.org/2008/10/creativity-and-the-role-of-the-leader/ar/1
DO YOU KNOW THE WAY OF THE INNOVATION MASTER?
Do you know the way of the innovation master? If not, how can you expect to
lead an innovation initiative in your company?
But don’t worry, you can read my book entitled, appropriately enough,
The Way of the Innovation Master
and become an innovation expert! The Way runs you through the key steps of launching
an innovation initiative, from planning to implementing and more.
You can learn more about the Way here,
or order it from Amazon
and most other on-line and off-line bookshops.
The products, processes and business models we see as great innovations are
almost never the result of a single idea. Rather, they are the result of continuous
creativity. Admittedly, they may be sparked by an idea. But once the innovations
move forward, those ideas promptly become concepts and, most importantly, those
concepts are continuously developed through continuous creativity.
Example 1: Google
Consider Google as an example. The idea of a search engine was not at all new
when Sergey Brin and Larry Page first met up and were inspired to find theses
projects. At that time, even the idea of a search engine which produced meaningful
results was well established as an ideal, even if it did not really exist in
practice. (If you were using the web in the 90s, you will know what I mean!).
However, while at Stanford, the two postgrads came up with the idea of using
the model of research paper citations as an algorithm for determining the relevance
of web pages in search engine results.
And, you might think, history was made. But it was not actually. All they had
was an idea. However, they soon developed it into a concept incorporating their
understanding of cutting edge data mining technology. They then bought cheap
computers and built a model – constantly running into problems, adding
new ideas and developing their concept into reality.
Eventually, the concept of adding small text advertisements to search results
was dreamed up and tested. It worked. Suddenly, Google had a business model.
Even today, Google’s search engine and advertising engine are constantly
being improved through new ideas – a cycle of continuous creativity. Unscrupulous
marketing morons are always looking for tricks to take advantage of Google’s
algorithm in order to flood search results with unwanted advertising. Hence,
Google needs constantly to improve their algorithm in order to ensure the most
relevant results possible.
In short, the Google search engine was never really just an idea. Rather it
has been an organic concept that is continually being improved through creativity.
Example 2: McDonald's
Ray Kroc is sometimes credited with creating McDonald's and the idea of a global
fast food franchise. But the truth is, he invented neither. McDonald's was a
successful hamburger restaurant, run by two brothers in the 1950s when Ray discovered
it. Believing their restaurant concept was a great idea, he entered into an
agreement with the brothers and began opening McDonald's restaurants in his
home state of Illinois.
Ray soon realised that the best way to expand quickly was to franchise McDonald's.
That is, he allowed others to purchase the right to set up McDonald’s
restaurants in their areas. In exchange for a franchise fee and a percentage
of revenues, franchisees receive rights to the name, training and expertise
around a proven concept. Although franchising is often perceived to be an American
invention and is sometimes mistakenly attributed to Ray himself, it was actually
devised by English breweries in the 18th century. They franchised public houses
(or “pubs”) to franchisee owner-managers.
So, there was arguably nothing original in Ray’s concept of the fast
food hamburger franchise. Nevertheless, he was a very creative man and through
continuous creativity ensured that McDonald's became a roaring success in America
in the 1960s and 70s and globally for the coming decades.
Today, McDonald's may seem the epitome of a boring, unimaginative business.
But that is basically because it defined the American fast food hamburger franchise
around the world. The company’s success, moreover, came not from any one
big idea, but rather a stream of continuous creativity that led to continuous
innovation and ensured that there are few places in the world today where a
McDonald's cannot be found.
What Can We Learn from This?
The main thing to take away from this is that while ideas are important, they
are only a very small part of the innovation process. Moreover, one idea is
never enough to launch an innovation. At best, it may spark innovation –
although as we have seen with McDonald's, even that spark is not always necessary.
True innovation requires a stream of constant creativity to turn concepts into
reality and later to ensure that the concept is continually improved through
If you believe that you can create an innovation based on a single ideas –
and then rest on your laurels, you are in for a surprise. Your competitors will
simply copy your initial idea, apply continuous creativity themselves and leave
your company floundering in the background as they out-innovate you.
If you are evaluating or developing a creative idea, especially one that may
result in a breakthrough innovation, one of the best things you can do is to
have an argument about it! Okay, not an argument as such, but a creative debate
about it. That’s because a well mannered, intelligent debate about a new
idea is a great way to force you to defend the viability of the idea, strengthen
the weaknesses and enable yourself to sell it to decision makers.
Rules of the Debate
Some cultures relish intellectual debates. In France and many parts of Eastern
Europe, in particular, friends almost daily get together and argue vehemently
about politics, philosophy, religion and the arts. Yet when they go home, they
remain the best of friends. In these cultures, the arguments are about ideas
and not about the people. In other cultures, such as in Japan and Thailand,
debate – even about ideas – can be too personal. To criticise or
question a friend’s ideas is seen as criticising the friend herself. This
is a hard lesson I learned in my early days of moving from culture to culture.
To take into account cultural issues, personal sensitivity and office politics,
we need to establish some rules of creative debate. For some people, these rules
will come naturally. For others, it will be necessary to memorise them.
Rule 1: Respectful Debate
The most important rule is that both parties to the debate fully respect each
other and remember that it is the idea that is undergoing critical debate as
a means of understanding it better and strengthening it. Under no circumstances
may either party criticise the other.
Rule 2: Listen Completely then Speak; Do Not Interrupt
This is very important. When a debate becomes impassioned, there is a tendency
to interrupt the speaker in order to question or make a point. This cannot be
allowed. Both parties must agree to listen to the other person speak in full.
When the other side has made her point, then you can ask questions and make
However, as a speaker you must also respect the other party and so focus on
addressing the points they have made. If necessary, add your own additional
points, but be brief. Then allow the other side to respond. Embarking on a lecture
covering multiple points is not fair to the other side and is likely to spoil
Remember, if you are defending an idea, it is in your interests to hear and
respond to the feedback of your sparring partner.
Rule 3: Take Notes!
If you are defending an idea in a debate, be sure to take notes on your opponent’s
comments and criticisms. This will ensure that you remember to address these
issues when responding. More importantly, your notes will act as reminders about
areas where your idea, or your description of it, need to be improved.
Rule 4: Acknowledge Agreement
If you agree with a point made by the other party, acknowledge it. This allows
the debate to move on to other issues.
Rule 5: Remember: It Is Better a Partner Finds the Flaws
When you are debating an idea or concept with a colleague, business partner,
friend or family, always bear in mind it is better that any of these people,
rather than a client or senior manager to whom you are selling an idea, find
a serious flaw with your idea. If the other party seems reluctant to share deep
criticisms, remind them of this.
Rule 6: Thank the Other Person When You Are Finished
The final rule is to thank the person with whom you have had the creative debate.
She has given you her time and feedback in order to help you develop an idea
and she has better prepared you to sell that idea internally or to a prospective
One last note, if you have had a bad day or are feeling emotionally fragile,
do not attempt to participate in a debate. No matter how seriously you take
the rules and appreciate that it is a debate over an idea, it can sometimes
be hard not to take criticism personally.
Thanks to my friend and fellow innovation consultant, Maren Baerman (http://www.innoviva-consulting.de/)
for the creative debate that inspired this article. Our debate also helped me
further refine my thoughts on Anti-Conventional Thinking (ACT),
which I wrote about in the last issue of Report 103.
JENNI IDEA MANAGEMENT SOFTWARE
If you need to facilitate an effective innovation initiative in an organisation
with 100s or 1000s of people, then Jenni innovation process management is your
ideal solution. Better still, my colleagues and I will steer you through the
innovation process, ensuring you get relevant ideas that meet your strategic
Learn more here (http://www.jpb.com/jenni/)
us to talk about how Jenni can support your innovation plan.
What do you think of the crazy picture of me they have posted on the South
African Innovation Summit web site? http://www.innovationsummit.co.za/jeffrey-baumgartner.php
I will be speaking and delivering a workshop at this exciting event at the
end of August and am very much looking forward to it as well as meeting some
people I have corresponded with for years, but whom I have never met in person.
What about you? I’d love to meet you too. If you live in South Africa
or plan to be in Johannesburg in late August, join this event! http://www.innovationsummit.co.za/.
Just a couple of weeks after that and I will be off to Portugal to deliver
a workshop at the European Conference on Creativity and Innovation. This is
the biggest and most exciting European creativity and innovation conference
and I am honoured to be participating. Moreover, Portugal was my home for a
while in the mid 80s and it is always a treat to revisit the country. If you
are in Portugal or want an excuse to spend some time in the Algarve (the beautiful,
beach resort part of Portugal) in September, come join the event! I’d
love to meet you and there will be much to learn. http://www.eaci.net/eccixii/index.php
And, of course, I can almost always be found at the Brussels Imagination Club
every 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month. More information at http://www.imaginationclub.org/brussels
I could also be speaking or delivering workshops in your company.Contact
me to discuss your needs!
Report 103 is a complimentary eJournal from Bwiti bvba of Belgium (a jpb.com
company: http://www.jpb.com). Archives and subscription information can be found
Report 103 is edited by Jeffrey Baumgartner and is published on a monthly basis.
You may forward this copy of Report 103 to anyone, provided you forward it
in its entirety and do not edit it in any way. If
you wish to reprint only a part of Report 103, please contact Jeffrey Baumgartner.
Contributions and press releases are welcome. Please
contact Jeffrey in the first instance.