ideas are cheap


I’ve had a strange week. I’ve spent a lot of it working around some network data so that I can analyse it. It’s for a consulting job, and the guy that collected it gave it to me in a state that was ….. not what I was looking for. So it’s been a bit of a frustrating week. On the other hand, nearly every data analysis exercise that I’ve gone through has had some drama attached to it. The simple fact of the matter is that it takes a fair bit of work to go from raw data, which is messy, to network diagrams like the one above, which also include lots of stats. Once I’ve got a picture and stats, then I can tell a story. It takes work to get to that point, but once I’ve told a story about the data, then I’ve executed an idea. The idea might be a hypothesis to be tested, a hunch about a firm, a cool new way to analyse something, or any number of things. One of the ideas that I keep stressing to everyone I talk to (students, research students, colleagues, industry partners, you, EVERYONE!) is that ideas are cheap.

There’s a nice post by Doug Neff on Nancy Duarte’s blog that gets at this idea from a different direction. He tells a story about doodling on the whiteboard to illustrate how the creative atmosphere at Duarte encourages a proliferation of ideas. And it reinforces an idea that I’ve had, which is that generating ideas is a process that accelerates exponentially. If I try to write one blog post a week, I struggle to come up with a good idea. If I try to write one post per day, I end up with 3 or 4 good ideas nearly every day. It’s weird, but that’s always the way it has worked for me.

But I think the reason for this is that it is actually executing ideas that leads to increased creativity. Every time I actually write a post, I’ve executed the idea. If I’m trying to store up ideas, they have less value. It’s harder to figure out exactly how to make the idea work, ideas run together, I become convinced that they’re crap, or I think they’re so great I freeze up and can’t figure out how to express them. This last one is a key point – I think we often end up vastly overvaluing ideas because of their enormous potential. But really, unexecuted ideas are nothing but trouble. The one advantage to unexecuted ideas is that you don’t have to go through the tedious work of sorting out data so that you can analyse it, you don’t have to go through the mental grief of writing – in short, you can dodge all the hard work.


You can’t really judge the value of an idea though, without putting in the work to test it, and to execute it. If we get too caught up in ideas, we overvalue them. We end up thinking that each idea is precious, and shouldn’t be wasted. From this perspective, we’re like albatrosses – who raise one chick every two years. I think we need to be more like salmon – rattling out ideas in volume (the obvious flaw in this metaphor is that salmon do that with their eggs, and then they die – so we don’t want to be exactly like salmon…). I think we should figure out ways to test out ideas quickly, so we can figure out which work and which don’t, and then nurture and grow the good ones. Humans are inherently problem-solving animals. Consequently, we don’t usually suffer from a shortage of ideas. We need to focus more on figuring out which ones are the good ones. We need to be salmon!

So I say go out and execute ideas. Do some work, try them out and figure out which ones are the good ones. But one way or another – execute! I guess I’m saying that the people at Duarte, in addition to continuing to write their excellent blog and to create great presentations, should go ahead and build their moat, complete with sharks (with laser beams attached to their frickin’ heads).

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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9 thoughts on “ideas are cheap

  1. I’m trying very hard to focus on the words surrounding the pictures, but I happen to love roe, so it’s really taking me out of this and thinking instead about Sushi-Go-Round on 23rd.

    When I first saw the title I thought “ideas aren’t really cheap.. words are.” Because there can be a plethora of words with no meaning behind them. I agree fully that pushing out all the ideas as fast as you can is the way to go. Sometimes I’m so full of ideas I can’t write them all down fast enough before they slip out of mind, other times I can’t raise a single idea to save my life. Then it’s time to refer back to other ideas. Ask a novelist with writer’s block if he thinks ideas are cheap.. 😀

    p.s. It occurs to me that thanks to statistics class on the brain I sure wouldn’t want to have to find the least-squares regression line of that first image.

  2. Since this is a blog post about innovative ideas, I want to spill a thought on innovation I’ve had rattling in my head for a while now. It started when I learned the nature vs. nurture controversy in 7th grade (conclusion: both matter) and continued as I pondered the effect of the weather on depression in rainy Northwest towns.

    I began to wonder what effect year-round weather has on human innovation, and whether cities which are or have been centers of innovation are subject to the most balanced extremes of weather – four seasons of warm, hot, cool, and cold, and the innovations humans must make in their living habitats to live comfortably year-round in these conditions. Places that seem more one way or the other – resolutely cold or resolutely warm – year-round seem to have the least desire for technological innovation; perhaps because it simply wasn’t necessary to change one’s living habitat with the seasons and thus complacency was more easily a way of life – perhaps because humans who disliked the challenge presented by semi-constant change migrated to those places and stayed, adapting to lack of change.

    Building a structure that could withstand hot and cold temperatures year after year, plus things like pipes that had to be wrapped to bear cold yet still be functional in hot weather – it all reminded me of the theory on how the invention of the stirrup changed the world profoundly, because everything was pushed to a more able level. Does this make sense? Are there existing theories out there about this I haven’t heard of?

  3. There have been a few studies that touch on your weather idea Amber. There’s a reasonable body of evidence supporting the idea, although the research has been done at the country level rather than the city level. A nice summary of all of it (and a book I suspect you’d like) is in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David Landes.

    And I take your point about writers with writer’s block – but in my experience it is much more common for people to fall in love with the first idea they have. I didn’t express that point very well in this post, so I’ll have to give it another go at some point. Usually when I’ve had writer’s block the problem hasn’t been too few ideas though – it’s been difficulty in getting the ideas I’ve got organised into some kind of coherent framework…

  4. “sharks (with laser beams attached to their frickin’ heads).”

    hahaha! one…million dollars worth!

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