Get Better Ideas, Not More

Innovation is all about executing ideas so that they have economic or social value. John and I have both talked frequently about how many firms overemphasise generating ideas when they try to increase innovation. When they make this mistake, they end up with a lot of stockpiled ideas, but the amount that they have successfully executed hasn’t gone up because they have mistaken invention for innovation.

There are two issues with ideas that we need to manage – we need to get better ideas, and we need to get them to spread. At a personal level, these are the two parts of connecting – we connect ideas together to create novel, valuable new ideas, and then we connect these ideas to people to get them to spread. We also have to do both of these things as firms when we are managing innovation.

I ran across a great example of these issues today with the blog. A couple of days ago I wrote about how Venessa Miemis used the skills of aggregating, filtering and connecting to create a great blog post called ‘iPad: Overhyped Flop or a Case of Great Design Thinking?‘. The post was very good, and it ended up going fairly viral, with over 14,000 views in a week. Venessa’s assessment is that the bulk of this traffic was driven by this tweet from Tim O’Reilly:

That seems like a pretty reasonable assessment to me. Our conclusion was that connecting the idea to O’Reilly was what led to it being connected to many of the 14,000 people that arrived later. Coincidentally, I had the same thing happen to me yesterday with my post using the aggregate, filter and connect framework to analyse the success of O’Reilly Media. It also was tweeted by Tim O’Reilly:

You couldn’t really ask for a better controlled experiment, could you? So what happened with my post? Well, O’Reilly drove a bunch of traffic to my site – today has had the single highest number of visitors to the blog ever, and it’s still only 1 pm here in Australia. But the total number of visitors is about an order of magnitude less than the number Venessa had.

Why is this? I think it is because of the quality, or at least the spreadability of the ideas in the two posts. Seth Godin uses this diagram in his post today to show how the quality of an idea is worth more than the number of (faux) followers you are talking to:

He is arguing that if your idea is more likely to be passed along, than you can start by giving it to only 100 people (the purple and green lines), and it will quickly spread further than worse ideas seeded among 10,000 people (the red and yellow lines).

Why were Venessa’s ideas more likely to spread than mine? A few reasons:

  • I think hers were better thought out. Her post on the iPad is thorough, it makes really good sense, and she articulates the key themes that she found very well. Mine was a lot rougher and this makes my post less likely to spread (though I’m still thrilled with how many people have read it!). The better idea spread much further through the same channel.
  • Venessa’s topic has a broader appeal – which makes it more spreadable. There are a lot more people interested in whether or not the iPad will be any good than there are interested in business model innovation. Hard to figure, but true!
  • The iPad is a better fit with Tim O’Reilly’s network. If we can generalise about over a million people, I think it’s reasonably safe to say that they are probably more interested in technology than in innovation ideas. So the overlap between the overall higher number of people interested in iPads and O’Reilly’s list of followers is high too.

I think this is a perfect example of the importance of connecting up ideas before we try to connect them to people. Godin’s conclusion is:

A slightly better idea defeats a much bigger but disconnected user base every time.

The lesson: spend your time coming up with better ideas, not with more (faux) followers.

This is an important innovation lesson as well. We don’t need more ideas, we need better ideas. In many ways this is a stock and flow problem – if we only focus on stocks of ideas, we’re less able to get them connected to people. We need to think about our idea flow. As the story of these two posts illustrates, the quality of an idea has a lot to do with how well it flows through our networks. It is yet another example of the greater importance of quality, not quantity.

As we’re managing innovation, we need to figure out ways to increase the quality and the flow of our ideas, not just the number of them.

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

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

7 thoughts on “Get Better Ideas, Not More

  1. Nice post… 😉

    I think you’re over-analysing here. Quality of the post doesn’t count, a click is a click. All that counts here is the exact phrase of the original tweet, and Tim’s add-on (especially Tim’s add-on content) – because it is that what will make people click

    Of course tweets from Tim are scarce, and valuable. But hardly anyone reads them all, as he has a wide range of interest

    Reading tweets is much like speed-reading: you pick a few words to get a general idea
    Only reading the first 3-5 words of a tweet is usually enough to assess its interest

    Let’s put that to the test!
    Here’s the first tweet:

    “Without a doubt” is a strong attention-drawer, “the best post” (next 3 words) keeps the attention there, and makes it even stronger. “iPad” still hooks your attention, and “Overhyped Flop” and “Great Design Thinking” are all very strong words and word combinations. A contradiction, strong words, superlatives, wow!

    Just read it quickly and you won’t even see or record @VenessaMiemis but simply click it. Heck, even if you have a strong dislike for Venessa you probably will click it anyway. Such strong words!

    Now, for the other tweet: (not meant as offensive, just trying to be the average Tweeter here scanning a few hundred or thousand tweets a day)

    “Nice piece”. Hmmm, well, if bored I might read the rest of the tweet. Hardly excited yet
    “Aggregate, Filter & Connect” pffff that’s a lot of words that don’t make sense together. Aggregate is not very common, and “fancy”. And how or why should I filter and connect? Gee this is complex
    “for Smaller Firms” oh this is about small firms, gee why should i care about that? What’s a small firm anyway?
    “as a case study” a case study… wow it’s a study, can’t use that right away, academical, bleh

    I really lose my (MY) interest at the Aggregate, Filter & Connect part, and wouldn’t have bothered at all when busy because it says “Nice piece”

    Here’s my experiment: write any post, no matter what the content is. Have a great title for it, strong words, important words, up-to-date and hot words, superlatives, contradictions. Make a great tweet for that, and you’re halfway because a lot of people will just click the link because the tweet itself hooks their attention
    The hard part: for Tim (or others) to retweet this, it needs to be a good post…

    I get 50-75 clicks/ post on average, with 0, 1 or 2 retweets. When I post the same posts on my company’s blog, I get 20-30 clicks / post, with 5-10 retweets
    My conclusion? My followers don’t retweet much, but like my posts (they keep clicking my tweets about new blog posts). My company’s followers retweet a lot, but don’t like my company’s posts much. What does that say? My followers don’t feel the urge to show me they read my post, and when they like it they’ll just comment. I’m an entirely different brand than my company…

  2. Thanks for the thorough and thoughtful comment Martijn. I agree with most of what you say. Tim’s tweet of Venessa’s post was definitely more compelling, for the reasons you point out.

    One thing I didn’t mention – I think that a big part of the flow-on effect here comes from retweets. On his first tweet I circled that number in red (though it’s hard to see) – that post had 95 RTs (and that’s just new-style ones!) – his tweet for my post had 7. I think those numbers reflect both the factors that you outline, as well as the quality of the posts.

    I do need to get better at writing post titles too – it’s by far the worst part of my blogging right now, I think.

    Your stats at the end are really interesting. I’ve had similar experiences where the same posts in different contexts have completely different patterns of diffusion. I think you’re right about the brand differences.

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