What Are Your Ideas Trying To Tell You?

The Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling has been credited with saying: “If you want to have good ideas you must have many ideas.” Companies of all sizes have embraced that advice, investing considerable time and energy into innovation projects, amassing vast storehouses of ideas along the way. If we take Pauling’s definition of ‘good’ to mean ‘breakthrough’—having the potential to create dramatically higher level of value than current solutions—then these vast databases seem to be a positive sign.

It’s a shame, then, that the second part of Pauling’s advice tends to be overlooked: “Most of (your ideas) will be wrong, and what you have to learn is which ones to throw away.” It’s certainly true that most ideas written on a Post-It note or submitted to an online system never get used, but the reason has more to do with a bias toward short-term payback in most innovation processes than informed filtration.

parc-innovation-lab-ad-JANMost innovation campaigns involve a discovery phase (developing insights about the challenge) followed by an ideation phase (brainstorming solutions). For most companies, built for efficient replication, this “divergent” activity is uncomfortable. When the brainstorming is complete, there tends to be a relieved resurgence of reflexive execution-bias, a comforting sense of making choices and assigning development actions. This “convergent” activity is often known as the selection phase.

As the ones who control the resources that will be used for developing any of the ideas, senior leaders often control the conversation during this phase. Frugality demands a dramatic reduction in the volume of new concepts being considered; after all, you can’t pursue everything to an equal depth. Furthermore, if the company’s innovation process dictates that ideas be incubated within existing business units, those ideas will be better received if they are broadly consistent with the core business. It’s easy to see how radical ideas are frequently weeded out at this point for conspicuously rational if short-sighted reasons.

So the first thing your ideas are probably trying to tell you is to focus less on the number of ideas you generate, and more on improving the quality of your evaluation and selection methods. Having a target portfolio in mind is a good start. Portfolio management is a sophisticated discipline in which we at PARC specialize. The analysis can become quite complex and layered when balancing investments across a portfolio of projects, but in the case of early-stage ideas a simple approach will do. Establish a target for different classes of idea, by how revolutionary they are and how close to commercialization. Most selected ideas should fall into a close-in category often called ‘roadmap’ ideas (new versions of existing offers). A second horizon might group ‘adjacency’ ideas (new markets or applications for existing products or technologies). A third class represents a few ‘breakthrough’ ideas that represent options on distinctly new business areas.

Another way to improve the quality of idea evaluation is to syndicate decision-making across a wider group. Domain experts are often blinkered to new solutions; executives abhor risk; frontline employees are often enthusiastic but under-informed about real challenges facing breakthrough ideas. Engaging more voices in selection increases the chance that a bold idea will survive to the next level of investigation. A third strategy, popular with many VC firms, is to overweight minority favorable opinion, because a lone, passionate supporter can often make the difference between success and failure.

The second thing your ideas are trying to say is, we know where you could be headed, so zoom out every now and then to see the big picture.  This may seem counter-intuitive—surely strategy comes first, followed by ideas on how to achieve it?—but there is genuine strategic insight to be extracted from ideas. Clusters of ideas, especially when well grounded in deep insights about customer needs and market trends, indicate where the business could be heading. Even better, they point to opportunity areas your people have already declared their passion to explore.

The key point here is that, just as the crowd is famously smarter than any individual member, a collection of ideas can suggest themes of greater significance than any randomly-selecting single idea. These crowdsourced themes can be the ideal starting point for a serious innovation inquiry, rather than a finish line.

Georges_Seurat_closeup250_dotsTo put it another way, let’s recall your high school art class segment on impressionism, including the pointillists, like Georges Seurat. At close range, the dots of pure color placed by the artist form attractive but meaningless clusters. However, as you zoom out, distinct shapes appear until, at some distance, recognizable forms and their relationship to other forms become clear.

Georges_Seurat_250_fullNow substitute ideas for dots.  Say each idea proposes a new product, service, or feature improvement aimed at upgrading your customer’s experience (for example: “A sensor that darkens a car windshield when it faces direct sunlight”).  Judged in isolation, the idea might be pursued or discarded as a project. When clustered with similar ideas, it might reveal a potential family of solutions delivering valuable benefits to a recognizable customer group (“Adaptive technologies for cars that increase driver comfort”). A further zoom-out encompassing many idea clusters can reveal strategic design principles that will inform strategy across entire business lines (“From dumb components to dynamic driver aids”).

In practice, this abstraction outwards from idea pools is not easy. It requires practice, and a tolerance for iteration and discussion. Most critically, it depends upon a robust pool of ideas where quality, not quantity, is the measure. Yet I would argue that the results are worth the effort. Done well, it delivers far greater strategic agility, because more (collectively smarter) heads are processing more strategic options than the traditional top-down strategic planning process can achieve. In a world where change is becoming non-linear, static strategy-making will no longer do.

I hope you are inspired to consider your company’s collection of ideas as a strategic starting point, not merely as an innovation project endgame, by taking the time to build a portfolio with care, and to examine the whole for strategic insight. I think Linus would approve.

Jeremy Clark is an Innovation Principal in the Innovation Services Group at PARC.  This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.

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