I didn't throw up.
Dwilly launched three weeks ago and the number of things I worried about was ridiculous. I was afraid it'd be too much.
I wasn't ready. I hardly slept. I found mistakes in the code at midnight. I almost sent everything out at 4am.
But I didn't throw up. And it ended up being a really great day.
When the time came, I simply made myself a cup of coffee, hit send, and watched people all over the world come up with ideas about how to redesign an experience millions of people have everyday.
Right now, I'm learning something new constantly. But in the months leading up to launching this great little idea generation community, I learned a tremendous amount as well.
So before I get too caught up in all of the new lessons, I want to share some of the most critical things I learned about innovation once I decided to generate one million ideas.
Rethinking the Role of Ideas
The lessons below are the result of speaking with incredible entrepreneurs, investors, social innovators, technologists, philanthropists, and designers.
They offered me unprecedented access into their experiences and insights, and gave me a perspective that money can't buy. All to help me not make the same mistakes as others.
Among other things they taught me why some corporate innovation divisions thrive while others falter horribly, as well as why the results of public ideation for governments are almost always underwhelming.
Perhaps the most important realization is that when you're working with ideas, you have to accept two seemingly contradictory realities at the same time:
1. We need many more good ideas
2. Good ideas aren’t as useful as we think they are
“At dinner parties, we all love sitting next to the “Idea Person”. And yet, the people who are most likely to be called “Idea People” from the outside know exactly how little an idea in and of itself is worth.”
Real innovation - products or services that make a significant demonstrable impact - is an ongoing interaction between ideas and implementation. You need creative and promising solutions all the way through execution, and will require many more than you expect as you iterate forward.
Where Do People Go Wrong?
So what's keeping us from generating the kinds of solutions that persistent problems require of us?
Why haven't we figured out how to generate and implement the ideas that'll make the impacts we desire?
It's complicated, but here are 12 of the biggest hurdles organizations succumb to when trying to generate breakthrough innovations
1. People in small organizations are typically hesitant to propose new ideas internally
A friend of mine's company built software to help small entities better manage the collection and implementation of innovation opportunities. What happened? In short, hardly anything. The employees were all too cautious to propose the things they believed would truly benefit them.
2. Big organizations often face a deluge of ideas and struggle to process them in a timely and efficient manner
When Fortune 500 companies develop innovation pipelines (outside of typical R&D), they know they need to get ideas from everywhere: employees, customers, vendors, etc. What happens in organizations at this scale is that they receive more ideas than can be easily managed. And each idea has a person attached to it that think it's a genius solution, expects a response, and is hoping it's good news. Just collecting and responding can be time-consuming, let alone meaningfully analyzing the data for investable opportunities.
3. There’s no algorithm for surfacing the best ideas
This is part of the reason why this area is so fascinating. Algorithms can help clean up and structure ideas, but they're limited in their ability to say
You never would’ve thought of this and you need to see this.
4. Voting isn’t always a promising method for discovering disruptive ideas
Crowds often vote for what they already know and feel good about, or anything with momentum. Rooting for an uncertain option doesn't fit with our psyche. That's not always the case, but it's definitely something to be conscious of.
5. Individuals and groups don’t usually generate enough ideas to come up with brand new ones
A mentor of mine told me he's seen research that a group needs to generate 17 ideas before they begin generating truly new ideas. Most of the time groups don't come up with anywhere near 17 ideas, let alone 40 or 50. When people are expected to only come up with 1-3 every now and then, it's silly to think they'll generate the kinds of concepts your organization needs. People need to be in the habit of pushing their thinking further in order to do it well when the time is critical.
6. People are unknowingly influenced by concepts seeded by their peers
This is a classic problem of groups. It spans everything from courtroom jurors to design workshops. (It's also the basis for a lot of magic tricks). In recent years, there's been more of a realization that groups can sometimes produce more stagnant thinking than the same individuals generating new ideas on their own then coming together. It's hard to find the best opportunities when people are stacking the deck or barking the loudest.
7. Markets and organizations tend to suffer from myopic thinking.
This is hard for us to admit. We all think we're pretty hot stuff....just sitting on big ideas! The reality is our regions, markets, and organizations define our thinking more than we'd like to admit, and that stifles our ability to see what else we need to be doing.
8. People are rarely prompted to generate ideas outside of their areas of expertise
This is a huge barrier to innovation because many times technology simply needs transferred into a new domain in order to be impactful. For instance, basic robots might not be particularly cutting edge, but when they're used in modern baby products like rockers and strollers, they can upend an entire market (like 4moms did). It's the ability to look elsewhere that helps us makes sense of what's in front of us.
9. Consultants don’t get paid to come up with new ideas — just to tell you what other people do
Another benchmarking study is not what you need. Period.
10. Some people are burdened by too many ideas, while others hold tight to one or two for too long
What's important about this issue is that the needs of the two types of people are really different. The first group is looking for help focusing, while the other group needs help testing their idea against reality. Both are barriers to innovation, but so is treating them the same.
11. It’s too time-consuming and difficult to access a network of innovators willing to ideate on your issues
Most of the time, we call a couple of smart people in our network or pull together a moderately productive meeting and go from there. This, of course, leaves the whole process susceptible to a number of the barriers laid out here. But the reality is that connecting with, say, a robotocist from Europe and an entrepreneur in New York is a time-consuming and challenging task for a lot of people. A global network dedicated to solving problems isn't easy to develop, so we usually settle for the folks we have immediate access to, and the results reflect that.
12. Organizations that ask employees for ideas but don’t/can’t implement most of them risk suffering resulting drops in morale
The simple truth is that the vast majority of ideas you generate internally won't be implemented. But your employees have high hopes for their proposals, which means shooting down idea after idea has a significant impact not only on morale but on people's future willingness to submit new ideas.
So What Does Effective Ideation Look Like?
It's clear ideas are a complex brew. In a lot of ways idea generation is a wicked problem.
But if we're to truly get smarter about how we generate and implement new products and services, we're going to need to recognize how limited our ideas, approaches, and perspectives really are. It's time to quit kidding ourselves about how well we're seeding and developing the types of thinking required to create meaningful differences in people's lives.
What will it take to usher in a system for curating ideas from smart, creative people that doesn't fall prey to these 12 issues?
I don't have all the answers.
But I'm thankful to have 500+ people working on this with me.