Where do good ideas come from?

In their new book, Ideaflow, Jeremy Utley and Perry Klebahn contend that you find good ideas by generating an enormous amount of ideas of unknown quality and then testing them to find the winners.

Utley and Klebahn, directors of executive education at Stanford’s d.school, believe that you can train yourself to excel at this, through regular practice. Ultimately, they argue, creativity can be measured by “the number of novel ideas a person or group can generate around a given problem in a given amount of time.” (p. 9) They call this metric “ideaflow,” and argue that it’s “the only business metric that matters.”

“In most cases, you can’t really judge the merit of an idea until you’ve tested it in the real world,” Utley and Klebahn write. “At the start, you just need lots and lots of ideas. When it comes to creativity, quantity drives quality.” (p. 9)

Their book is a useful reminder that new ideas are just as important in times of uncertainty and economic downturn, when our instincts are often to freeze, cut back, and protect. It’s a practical guide to spurring creativity in workplaces—a common concern with shifts to hybrid and remote work—and avoiding the traps that undermine most group brainstorming. Ideaflow is also a manifesto for what you can do when your tendency might be to procrastinate or run from a problem.

“An idea is simply a new connection between two things that were already floating around in your head,” Utley and Klebahn write. (p. 5) So how do you generate more of them?

  • Practice every day. Each morning, you should write down 10 ideas before you start your workday, something the authors call an “idea quota.” They advise “seeding” your brain with a problem before you go to sleep, thinking about it in an unfocused manner. Such a problem might be “How do I ask my boss for a raise?” or “Where should we take our kids on vacation?” (p. 32) Then sleep and when you wake up think about the problem again while you’re showering or exercising. Before starting your workday, write down your 10 ideas, not focusing on whether they seem good or not.
  • Write your ideas down. Take extensive notes of your ideas, quotes, stories, facts, and anything else that could prove useful for solving problems down the line. “Rather than zeroing in on The Answer, you’re trying to generate as many directions as possible,” the authors write. (p. 40) They advise reviewing your notes weekly and transferring anything interesting to another, permanent document. The premise is that when you’re faced with a problem, you can turn to this storehouse of ideas rather than feeling paralyzed that you have to come up with something brilliant on the spot. Extrapolating from data about corporate research and product development, Utley and Klebahn conclude that it can require generating 2,000 ideas to identify one that ultimately proves successful.
  • Generate ideas as a group using an “innovation sandwich.” Brainstorm sessions are prone to groupthink, stopping before enough ideas are generated, and other unhelpful dynamics. But the authors aren’t ready to get rid of them and instead recommend the “innovation sandwich” approach where participants come together with lists of ideas they’ve already generated, then go away to think about the ideas, and then eventually return to discuss them again. They recommend assembling groups as small as three people who bring different perspectives and asking them to submit multiple initial answers to a “How might we….?” question expressing the problem. When people come together, you can spend time doing warm ups, such as icebreaker exercises, to get them in the right mindset. A facilitator picks a handful of the ideas submitted and then asks participants to come up with ideas inspired by each of them and stick them below the original. The group returns at a later time to discuss any ideas that occurred to them afterward and evaluate how to move forward.

"Even if you’re an acknowledged expert in your field,” the authors write,“you simply aren’t qualified to decide which ideas to pursue in the absence of real-world data. Nobody is! There are too many unknowns.” (p. 73)

So how do you test the ideas to find out which ones are good?

  • Test in the quickest, scrappiest way possible. Utley and Klebahn recount several stories of entrepreneurs who advertised products that didn’t exist to see whether anyone would buy them. “Surveys are useless,” they write. “Judge desire by people’s actions, not their words.” (p. 106) One shopping center offered free drinks to passersby to see whether there would be demand if it built out a full-scale beer garden. (There wasn’t, even when the drinks were free.)
  • Test a portfolio of ideas. You can narrow down the directions that are suggested by your ideas and test and prototype as many of them in parallel as you can afford. Winnow down what you can test also by assessing which ideas are exciting. “You will profit the most from the ideas you can’t stop thinking about, the ones you’re genuinely excited to pursue,” Utley and Klebahn write. (p. 83)
  • Pivot based on what you learn from the testing. “‘Putting the ‘wrong’ idea in the hands of real users yielded a valuable insight. It often does,” the authors write. (p. 114)

How do you improve your ability to generate breakthrough ideas? Utley and Klebahn believe that you should cultivate the intellectual inputs that are the grist of ideas, starting with your interactions with other people. Overall, you’re aiming for so-called “divergent” thinking, a variety of ideas rather than ones that converge in one direction from the start. Some of the authors’ recommendations:

  • Learning circles. Ben Franklin in his day regularly brought acquaintances with various backgrounds together to debate and discuss ideas. Some business people have similar learning circles to assemble people with diverse experiences and perspectives at a regular cadence to engage in discussion.
  • Customer councils. These are advisory boards of users who share feedback on your organization’s offerings and collaborate in developing ideas.
  • Idea-pipeline boards. Set up a corkboard where anyone can pin up ideas and then people can add notes and stars to the cards. Each week move the cards with the most comments and stars to a “Testing” column to then explore.
  • Weak-tie relationships. These are relationships with acquaintances, while strong-tie relationships are those you are in frequent, close contact with. Duke sociologist Martin Ruef found that groups where people had both strong and weak ties to others were more innovative than when the groups only included people with strong ties to each other. That’s because contact with people outside of your closest friends and family exposes you to other sets of inputs and ideas.
  • “How might we…?” framings. You can craft such questions to use in idea generation by thinking about what would happen if you explore the dimensions of scale, quality, emotion, expectations, and similarity.
  • Wonder wandering. Go for a walk and use the things and people you come across serendipitously to prod your thinking. For example if you see a stoplight, you might think about whether you could use a sort of yellow light to signal to customers that a product is about to run out. “Assume the presence of connections and let the brain do the work of finding them,” Utley and Klebahn write. (p. 220)
  • Slack to step back. Block out time regularly to think and cultivate intellectual inputs such as by meeting with people and reading. When faced with a problem and you get stuck coming up with ideas, allow yourself to step back from it and free your mind by moving, sleeping, or talking to other people.

To be sure:

  • The book’s subtitle “The Only Business Metric that Matters” is hyperbolic.
  • While Ideaflow is highly practical, it doesn’t address in sufficient detail the specific challenges and opportunities that remote and hybrid teams face generating ideas, and tools that might assist them.
  • For much deeper historical and conceptual analysis, I’d recommend Steven Johnson’s 2010 tour de force Where Good Ideas Come From.

Memorable anecdotes and facts:

  • Klebahn was CEO of bag maker Timbuk2 at a moment when it was in trouble. Counterintuitively, company board member Ken Pucker told him to take every Friday off so he’d have time to process everything and bring fresh ideas.
  • Vacuum maker James Dyson tested at least one variation on his invention every day for four years en route to a final design.
  • Prehype, a venture development firm, advertises nonexistent products on social media to see how many people click through. That allows it to quickly assess the demand before investing in them.
  • Jon Beekman started Man Crates by similarly advertising nonexistent offerings online and then would contact people who tried to buy them to get their feedback on the products he planned.
  • A product design leader at Cybex tested putting handlebars on treadmills by installing prototypes at a local hotel gym and seeing whether guests opted to use them over treadmills without handlebars. (Eight out of 10 did.)
  • When Klebahn was an executive at Patagonia, it wanted to expand into surfing gear. Tetsuya Ohara, a junior employee who managed raw material sourcing, was part of a group the company sent on a surfing trip to Mexico. An inexperienced surfer, he noticed the coldness of the water others took for granted, and helped the company to develop surfwear made of natural materials that kept people more comfortable.
  • While at Patagonia, a supplier tipped off Klebahn that Under Armour was quickly building a big business around the outdoor market. But he dismissed it as just a workout gear maker and missed the opportunity for Patagonia to expand into adjacent offerings that could have turbocharged its business. “Listen. Look. Notice. Ideaflow depends on inputs reaching a receptive mind,” Utley and Klebahn write. (p. 175)

Choice quotes:

  • “Creativity is doing more than the first thing that comes to your mind.” —unnamed seventh-grader (p. xv)
  • “Creativity is not a gift for a precious few. It’s learned.” (p. xx)
  • “Creativity is the craft of problem solving.” (xxi)
  • “Ideas are solutions to future problems. They represent tomorrow’s profits. No ideas, no tomorrow.” (p. 8)
  • “Ideas don’t exist somewhere out in the universe for you to catch them. They come from inside your head.” (p. 26)
  • “Creativity is a capacity you train and develop like physical strength or flexibility.” (p. 31)
  • “Regardless of exactly how you define creativity, the key thing is that we never create out of whole cloth. Instead, we connect what we have, bringing together two or more elements in a new way. Abundant ideaflow requires enormous amounts of raw material to make more of these unexpected combinations.” (p. 214)
  • “When it comes to ideas…getting stuck is a natural part of the gestation process. Don’t panic. Experienced creators learn to anticipate, even welcome, getting stuck as a sign they’re at the cusp of a breakthrough.” (p. 228)

The bottom line is that Ideaflow offers practical suggestions for avoiding procrastination, generating more ideas, and making group brainstorming sessions more productive.

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