Ideation process might have a basic secret sauce

Ideation Process

Work isn’t set up to create innovation, no, but most companies still have some kind of ideation process. Unfortunately the second word matters more than the first, so the process overwhelms the ideas, and usually companies don’t produce anything super innovative. Second thing to remember here is the hiring side of the equation. Because we supposedly live in this super fast-moving, rapid-pace business environment, hiring managers always claim to want “innovative thinkers” on their teams. (Even for grunt roles.) The problem is that not everyone on a team will be innovative (it would legitimately be impossible). Some people have to make the trains run, and others fall into other roles. Still others probably don’t need to be there at all.

So ironically what’s happened is this. Because we love words like innovation, ideation, and entrepreneurship, we’ve oddly created massively bureaucratic organizations instead. We’ve done this because we keep hiring people who will supposedly be innovative and drive our ideation process to new revenue streams. When that doesn’t work, we just create another “strategic account manager” role and hire for that. Alas.

Maybe ideation process can emerge from something that companies have long been doing, though.

The Malcolm Gladwell approach to ideation process

Here’s an article from Northwestern on how to encourage innovative thinking. Seems a noble goal. So how do you encourage it? Well, these researchers analyzed citations in 20 million research papers, and:

They found that papers that draw from only very conventional or very novel sources had about a 5% chance of being highly successful. Yet, papers that relied mostly on conventional sources but also included some highly novel ones were twice as likely to be a hit.

“Many of these novel combinations are really two conventional ideas in their own domains,” says Uzzi, a professor of management and organizations and the faculty director of the Kellogg Architectures of Collaboration Initiative. “You’re taking established, well-accepted ideas, which is a wonderful foundation—you need that in science. But when you put them together: wow. That’s suddenly something really different.”

So basically: take an established, conventional idea. Slightly tweak it or explain it differently. Now your idea is better. Isn’t this literally how Malcolm Gladwell became rich?

“The Uber Of…”

Companies love to riff off other business models. How many times have you heard “the Uber of…” since about 2013? Pretty common. I once had a kid tell me his idea for the Uber of child care, where you could give your kids to strangers who didn’t have kids. That one probably didn’t get off the ground.


But here’s what is happening in all these cases: an established idea (Uber) is supposedly being made novel (child care) and that’s supposed to become a better idea. It works sometimes, but not all the time.

One thing to be careful about in this kind of ideation process

You can’t just copy. That’s been a big problem in marketing recently, and it bogs down content marketing too. People get a keyword to try and hit for, and they get lazy and Google the established content off that keyword. That’s why you have tons of blog posts essentially saying the exact same thing and linking to the same resources. All that stuff is then getting shared and automated. This, in turn, creates the issue of digital noise.

So much stuff flying at us, and most of it vaguely similar, creates the problem of the modern era: We have data everywhere, but seemingly no clarity, guidance, or way to get through all that. We just swim in it all day, usually within our bubbles, and then we rinse and repeat the next day. Companies do the same thing, honestly — task task task meeting meeting meeting chart chart chart, but almost never is the purpose or relevance of those things clearly explained.

Maybe the ideation process we need is one to make all this a bit more logical.

Ted Bauer

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