The Anatomy of a Great Idea

Ideas are not invented equally. I’d suggest that anyone who repeats the adage that ‘no idea is a bad idea’ has never attended a management away day.

So what makes a great idea?

There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.

Mark Twain

This week has largely been spent talking about the generation and deployment of new thinking. We’re hot off the back of a successful launch of new programme for colleagues at Bromford (the stunningly titled ‘Ideas’), and then I also spent Tuesday evening talking to a Leaders Masterclass on moving from ideation to action.

Ideas are not invented equally. I’d suggest that anyone who repeats the adage that ‘no idea is a bad idea’ has never attended a management away day.

That said, bad ideas can be stepping stones to great ones. Ideas that solve a problem in a unique way are usually a combination of existing ideas, many of which may seem bad at first. If you accept that most ideas from colleagues will be bad ones that will help you move on to new ideas faster and more easily.

So let’s think about the anatomy of a great idea and the four components:

1 – The cost of the problem you are trying to fix is understood (or at least estimated).

Generally the idea must be ‘priceable’ i.e it’s got to be worth buying. This may be a cost, time, or inconvenience saving, but it’s got to make someone’s life easier. Most of us can’t remember a time before washing machines, but if you have an elderly relative ask them whether they are worth £300.

2 – The cost of solution needs to be less than the cost of problem

It’s simply not going to work if the solution you are offering isn’t convenient or cheap enough. The price of innovative solutions should reflect how much people value the problem you have solved. In other words, how much is bridging the value gap worth to your customers or colleagues?

3 – There should be no easily available alternatives that are just good enough.

A great idea should have a unique value proposition as people are lazy and won’t switch if they have something that largely does the job. Most people don’t tariff switch as the thought of saving £10 or £20 a year simply isn’t worth the perceived effort of switching. Similarly, Google+ failed because for all the faults with Facebook – it’s just about good enough for what most people need.

4 – It’s not a one shot

This one doesn’t always hold true, but generally a great idea solves a problem that is repeatable i.e people need the solution more than once. We wouldn’t all buy lawnmowers if grass only needed cutting once a year.

Let’s also remember that the greatest ideas are often the simplest. Your idea may be complex in execution, but it should be simple in concept. 

As we’ve established then, a good idea is founded more in the world of problems, but we rarely talk about them. I’ve worked in idea focused cultures and I’d argue that although they give the impression of being more ‘creative’, there’s actually very little of substance behind it. It’s often just innovation theatre

Coined by Steve Blank the term innovation theatre is where ideas – arguably the easiest bit of the innovation process – are valued more than the discipline of turning those ideas into profitable business models. This requires a level of leadership commitment that is often harder to get.

An idea focused culture is exacerbated by the following conditions:

  • Leadership putting pressure on finding quick fixes and the realisation of short term goals — rather than exploring long term impact
  • Discussing problems, or considering that organisation itself may be part of the problem, is seen as taboo or a sign of weakness, or even as a waste of time 
  • Management falling in love with a solution too easily even if it’s not solving the problem at hand

A problem focused culture is far more likely to generate great ideas as great ideas address a human want or necessity.

Perversely, the way to have the best ideas is not to encourage ideas at all, but rather to obsess about really great problems.

How To Kill Ideas (Part 53)

Many organisations act as inhibitors of innovation.

Rules and protocols are put in place, often for very good reasons, that preserve the status quo.  Over time, organisations develop a set of social norms – ‘the way we do things around here’ – that can quell any creativity or dissent.

Organisations can quickly develop an autonomic immune response that kills ideas – without any conscious effort. This immune system builds up easily and quickly spreads, but is far harder to dismantle.

One of the ways you can begin to repel these idea antibodies is , as Chris Bolton has outlined, to deploy a sort of ‘immunosuppressant agent’. This may simply be strong leadership saying ‘all new ideas are welcome’.

In my last post I shared how Bromford are attempting to democratise innovation by asking the 50 most senior leaders in the organisation to develop their skills by daring to disagree with each other and becoming more receptive and open to challenge.  

Working with my LD50 colleagues we established a Developing Ideas Group where we encourage colleague to submit ideas that save us money or improve customer or colleague experience. We are trying to distinguish between simple ‘ideas’ that lend themselves to a ‘crack on and try it approach’ with a complete acceptance of failure, and the more complex/higher risk problems.

The more complex problems are presented through a colleague pitch.

Asking colleagues to pitch ideas is a high risk venture. There is a glorification of the pitch in business today. Startup events and innovation challenges are popping up everywhere. Hacks are common, with 24 hour business creation marathons where strangers connect and form solutions together. Every such event revolves around the pitch and the skills and strategies required for an effective pitch.

Asking people to pitch ideas can fail as it forces people to rush to solutions. Which hastily assembled pitch should we bet on? The answer should often be: none of the above.

Pitching ideas is often just innovation theatre. Too many Executives fancy themselves as budding Dragon’s Den investors – waiting to show their business acumen by outwitting the person pitching. Many years ago I took part in a innovation challenge that followed the Den format so closely you could almost guess which Dragon the Executives were pretending to be. It was a dispiriting experience, with colleagues emerging either crushed or with a lot more work to do – often with no more resources.

At Bromford we are trying to do something slightly different – asking colleagues to pitch really great problems rather than firm proposals.

We’ve been coaching some of the Leadership team using nemawashi principles – so the rule of the pitch is that you can’t shoot any idea down – or even criticise it – you can only ask questions.

As I have previously written Nemawashi is a Japanese phrase translating into ”an informal process of quietly laying the foundation for some proposed change or project, by talking to the people concerned, gathering support and feedback, and so forth.” In Nemawashi the potential solution is prepared in very draft form but this time we check in with any colleague with a significant organisational position, not just bosses, to build consensus.

As David O’Gorman has written the nemawashiringi process is grounded in the need to maintain harmony within the organisation while at the same time make sound decisions.  An advantage of the nemawashiringi process is that once a proposal is approved it can be rapidly implemented because all the relevant parties are on board. This is in contrast to Western processes, which can encounter obstacles during implementation, even from parts of their own organisation.

Ideas are easy to kill – problems aren’t

Simply unleashing ideas just isn’t enough. They are too vulnerable, too easy to kill off. If we anchor ideas in truly great problems you’ll find that colleagues build on the initial idea rather than attempt to destroy it.

A problem shared really IS a problem halved. Most problems do not fit neatly into one team or function and require input from a variety of perspectives. That’s why attempting to solve them in operational meetings with the usual suspects is a waste of time.  By harnessing the creativity, expertise, and ingenuity of the wider organisation as willing volunteers, we can solve problems in a more inclusive, efficient, and effective way.

And here’s the point: people don’t resist an idea they have helped define.

So don’t criticise ideas. Just learn to ask better questions.

Why Do Bad Ideas Spread So Easily?

Bad ideas can spread much more easily than good ones.

And in a world of complex problems – it’s understandable why people reach for ideas that sound like easy solutions.

So it’s important to understand how bad ideas spread as you can use the same tactics to spread your good ones.

Bad ideas can spread much more easily than good ones.

Why? Well as Seth Godin has said no one truly “gets” your idea unless:
a. the first impression demands further attention (it’s interesting)
b. they already understand the foundation ideas necessary to get the new idea (it’s not overly complex)
c. they trust or respect the originator (it’s believable)

This helps explain why online ideas spread so fast as they’re often interesting, simple and believable. But none of that means that they are good.

In a world of complex problems – it’s understandable why people reach for ideas that sound like easy solutions.

In the past week the UK Government launched it’s anti-obesity strategy which includes urging GPs in England to prescribe cycling as part of a new drive to tackle obesity in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

A trial for a similar scheme in Yorkshire concluded in November 2019 with positive outcomes. More than 61 per cent of participants in the trial reported their fitness had increased and more than one-third continued to cycle regularly after the 12-week programme had concluded.

From an innovation perspective it’s a huge leap from one pilot to national roll out but the scheme has all the makings of a spreadable idea. Interesting. Simple. Believable.

Time will tell whether it solves the problem but you can almost see the knee jerk mental dots being joined: Fat people = lazy, Cycling = good and relatively cheap, Doctors = Trusted. Combine all three and we are sorted.

But of course, obesity is a complex issue and there are many interconnected reasons people may be overweight, one of which is poverty.

As Naomi Davies wrote in response to my post on constantly looking for problems “My fear is we conflate obesity with mental models of laziness and work avoidance and attack a problem that does still exist …but pushes us towards solutions that have little impact & can be harmful.”

These mental models (many of which are prejudices that we all hold) help spread ideas quickly. I reckon I could sell an idea quite easily to encourage the poor to buy bags of potatoes, or even grow their own, rather than spend money in chip shops. However the premise is deeply flawed – and would be destroyed by effective problem definition.

One other factor that helps spread a bad idea is something we have a lot of at the moment: panic.

Panic and anxiety are both born from fear, and are not necessarily bad things. Fear is the oldest survival mechanism we have, it encourages us to take action and helps us learn to avoid dangerous situations in the future through a process called negative reinforcement.

However , the short term innovative tactics we saw in the early days of the pandemic like getting people to work from home, changing medical and care practice at short notice, cannot be used to solve complex problems that require deeper consideration, evidence and testing.

These logical ideas are slowed by taking the time to process evaluate and reevaluate. Emotional responses are immediate and not slowed by thought. Right now a lot of our companies are super high on emotion and low on logic. We don’t like living with uncertainty so we rush to solutions – manna from heaven for the spread of bad ideas.

The notion that good ideas automatically trump bad ideas is totally untrue.

So it’s important to understand how bad ideas spread as you can use the same tactics to spread your good ideas.

  • Make your idea interesting – what is the problem it’s solving and how and why are people’s lives going to be better or easier as a result? This should certainly not be a report more like something that would fit on Twitter. It should demand further attention.
  • Make it as simple as possible to understand – or build it upon things people are already familiar with. If your idea is about helping tackle climate change or sustainability for example – most people have a basic grasp of this issue. Use a picture of that turtle with a plastic straw up its nose and everybody gets it.
  • Make it believable so consider who pitches the idea. It needs to be the most trusted or passionate person you can find. Put your ego aside – it doesn’t have to be you.
  • Don’t panic. Dumbed-down emotional ideas spread faster than logical ideas, but bad ideas crowd out the good. Do you want your company working on loads of ideas or a couple of really great ones?

Never underestimate ideas. The health of our society and that of future generations depends on us all making ill-conceived, bad or just plain stupid ideas unfit for those who spread them.


Photo by Franki Chamaki on Unsplash

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