Instead of Stockpiling Ideas, Make Them Flow

There’s a good post today by Michael Schrage concerning the recent article making the rounds claiming that America is suffering a creativity crisis. In short, he’s not buying that proposition. Here is one of the key quotes:

This point is vital: genuine creativity isn’t about ideas. It’s about translating ideas into ingenious products, services and solutions. Ideas are the seeds, not the substance, of creativity. Getting them to take root is easier than it’s ever been.

That’s why cover stories declaring creativity droughts in America feel so faux. Sure, they’re provocative. But the underlying science is psuedo; the overarching solutions are silly.

I agree with nearly all of the post, and it reinforces a couple of points that we have consistently tried to make here. The first is that any time we talk about ideas (and it doesn’t matter whether we frame the issue as “creativity” or “innovation”), we are better off thinking of it as a process rather than as an event. We must have great ideas, but more importantly, to be genuinely creative or innovative, we must execute great ideas.

As John Hagel perceptively pointed out in response to my post about using IP, this is a stock and flow problem. If we view idea generation as the critical creative function, then we will stockpile ideas. But in order to improve things, we don’t need stocks of ideas. We need well-executed ideas. The ideas must flow through some sort of selection and implementation process – and we better be good at both of these steps if we wish to succeed.


Finally, Schrage points out that the value of creative ideas (that have been executed!) is defined by whoever ends up using them. In other words, innovation is discovered in use. It is often very difficult to predict the best use for your idea in advance, and usually the best-laid plans are ruined at the first contact with the market. So one final skill that we need to build is flexibility – we need to be able to adapt our ideas as we’re executing them.

Generating creative ideas is a critical step in the innovation process. The problem is that too many people think of ideas as an end in themselves. If you do that, you end up stockpiling ideas, which doesn’t actually do you any good. Instead, think about managing ideas so that they get executed. To be creative, or innovative, you have to get the ideas to flow.

(the drought photo is from flickr/Mundoo under a Creative Commons License)

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.

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