Dual Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling famously said “The best way to have a great idea is to have a lot of ideas.”
He was right.
Well, really, he won two Nobel prizes, so my opinion here is relatively unimportant. But anyway, I think he was right.
The quote from Pauling showed up again recently in The Medici Effect by Frans Johansson. The book is very good – it talks about working at the intersections between disciplines in order to come up with radically innovative ideas.
Johansson brings this up to make a couple of important points. The first is that the people that we think of as being innovative often have history of executing a large number of ideas:
Some individuals or creative teams will come up with ten, a hundred, or even a thousand times more ideas than their peers. Not only that, those who have created the most are also the ones who have the most significant innovative impact. This was true in the past; Pablo Picasso, for instance, produced 20,000 pieces of art; Einstein wrote more than 240 papers; Bach wrote a cantata every week; Thomas Edison filed a record 1,039 patents. This holds true today. Prince is said to have over 1,000 songs stored in his secret “vault,” and Richard Branson has started 250 companies.
Obviously, there are also great ideas from people that aren’t so prolific. But Johansson is saying that generating a lot of ideas, and then trying them out is one outstanding way to eventually hit upon a great idea.
This leads to the second point – if you generate and try a lot of ideas, they’re not all going to be great, even if you are a creative genius. To show this, he revisits those examples:
… this explanation ignores the fact that groundbreaking innovators also produce a heap of ideas that never amount to anything. We play only about 35 percent of Mozart’s, Bach’s or Beethoven’s compositions today; we view only a fraction of Picasso’s works; and most of Einstein’s papers were not references by anyone. Many of the world’s celebrated writers have also produced horrible books, innovative movie directors have made truly uncreative duds, megasuccessful entrepreneurs have disappointed investors, and pioneering scientists have published papers with no impact whatsoever on their colleagues.
This ties into a couple of critical points about innovation. One is that it is not enough to have ideas. We have to sort them to figure out which ones work and which ones don’t. We can do this with some sort of selection process, but the best form of selection is to try them out. See what works and what doesn’t. Experimenting is a critical innovation skill.
The second point is that failing is part of the innovation process. Stefan Lindegaard has recently triggered a discussion on this topic, which as usual has elicited mixed responses. Some say that it is better to succeed than fail, and that it is dangerous to encourage failure. While this may be true, it is also true that if some of your ideas aren’t working, you aren’t trying enough ideas. Here’s a good take on this from Bloomberg Weekly:
But intelligent failures — those that happen early and inexpensively and that contribute new insights about your customers — should be more than just tolerable. They should be encouraged. “Figuring out how to master this process of failing fast and failing cheap and fumbling toward success is probably the most important thing companies have to get good at,” says Scott Anthony, the managing director at consulting firm Innosight.
As Stefan says, we need to fail smartly. Experiment, then do more of the things that work, and learn from the things that don’t. One key point here is that in order to learn from our experiments, we have to set them up so that we gather useful data regardless of whether they succeed as we expect them to or not. This is another critical innovation skill.
So I definitely agree with Pauling – the way to get a great idea is to try a lot of them. To do this successfully, we need to develop an experimental approach to innovation.
Note: Here is Johansson explaining some of the key concepts from the book, which is well worth reading: