To Uncover Great Ideas, Generate a Large Quantity of Them

by Paul Sloane

To Uncover Ideas, Generate a Large Quantity of ThemOne of the great problems with the Western education system is that it teaches that for most questions there is one correct answer. Examinations with multiple choice questions force the student to try to select the right answer and avoid the wrong ones. So when our students leave school they are steeped in a system that says find the “right answer” and you have solved the problem.

Unfortunately, the real world is not like that. For almost every problem, there are multiple solutions that may solve the problem with varying degrees of effectiveness. In other words, in the real world, there is more than one “right” answer. We have to unlearn the school approach and instead adopt an attitude of always looking for more and better answers.

To be really creative, you need to generate a large number of ideas before you refine the process down to a few to test out. To make your organization more innovative, you have to increase the yield. Why do you need more ideas? Because when you start generating ideas you generate the obvious, easy answers. As you come up with more and more ideas so you produce more wacky, crazy, creative ideas – the kind that can lead to really radical solutions.

Real-world examples

The management guru Gary Hamel talks about “corporate sperm count” – the virility test of how many ideas your business generates. Many managers fear that too many ideas will be unmanageable but the most innovative companies revel in multitudes of ideas.

When BMW launched its Virtual Innovation Agency (VIA) to canvass suggestions from people all round the world it received 4,000 ideas in the first week. And they continue to roll in. You can even make your own contribution to BMW’s idea bank.

The Toyota Corporation in-house suggestion scheme generates over 2 million ideas a year. Over 95% of the workforce contribute suggestions; that works out to over 30 suggestions per worker per year. The most remarkable statistic from Toyota is that over 90% of the suggestions are implemented. Quantity works.

Thomas Edison was prolific in his experiments. His development of the electric light took over 9,000 experiments and that of the storage cell, around 50,000. He still holds the record for the most patents – over 1,090 in his name. After his death 3,500 notebooks full of his ideas and jottings were found. It was the prodigiousness of his output that led to so many breakthroughs. Picasso painted over 20,000 works. Bach composed at least one work a week. The great geniuses produced quantity as well as quality. Sometimes it is only by producing the many that we can produce the few great works or ideas.

Putting these lessons to work for you

When you start brainstorming or using other creative techniques, the best idea might not come in the first twenty – or even in the first 100 ideas. The quality of ideas does not degrade with quantity. Often the later ideas are the more radical ones from which a truly lateral solution can be developed.

What do you do when you have a mountain of ideas and suggestions? You sort them, analyze them and try out those with the most potential. The really promising ideas are critically examined from the perspectives of technical feasibility, customer acceptance and profitability. If they pass these hurdles, they move rapidly to a prototype phase. They are then tested in the harsh reality of the marketplace, where a sort of accelerated Darwinism occurs – only the fittest survive. The interesting ideas should be kept in a database and allowed to incubate. When you revisit them later, you may well find that you now see a way to adapt or combine them into something worthwhile.

The venture capitalist’s strategy for testing promising ideas

The most innovative companies have an approach to trying out promising ideas that is like the philosophy of a venture capitalist. The VC invests in a portfolio of different start-up companies, fully knowing that most will fail. A few may break even, and one or two may become successes. But one big success can pay back the costs of all the failures.

Even though he is smart, the VC does not know which ventures will succeed and which will fail, so initially he backs all of them. As time goes on, he cuts funding for the failures and gives it to the winners. It is the same with prototypes in business. The leading innovators run many different pilots and measure progress carefully. They cut funding the losers, but nurture the successful trials with additional resources. That way they are first to market with the real winners.

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Paul SloanePaul Sloane writes, speaks and leads workshops on creativity, innovation and leadership. He is the author of The Innovative Leader published by Kogan-Page.

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