Ideas Are Cheap

I’ve said it before.

Andrew Hargadon has said it too – and in doing so he quotes Malcolm Gladwell saying it too.

Now one of my favourite current authors Charlie Stross says it as well: ideas are cheap.

Ideas are cheap.

They’re so damn easy to come by that I have difficulty understanding why so many people seem to want to ask me where I get my ideas from. All I do is read widely, and periodically bang a couple of random ideas together until I get a spark. It takes, on average, six to nine months to write a novel; but in brainstorming mode I can come up with half a dozen book-sized ideas in a week.

I have more ideas for books than I have time to write them. Also, some of these ideas are of … dubious, shall we say … commercial value.

The problem for innovation isn’t that we don’t have enough ideas. We might not have enough good ones, but there are always plenty around.

But to innovate, we need great ideas, we need some way to figure out which ones to pursue (a selection process), and we have to figure out how to get the ideas to spread. Successful innovation takes all three.

Stross’ post is interesting because in it he starts to describe his selection process (which ends up being a central part of his creative process). Interestingly, the novel-writing selection process is a funnel – just like the innovation process is in most firms.

He starts out with a bunch of ideas. Many of them fail to merit further development, but for others he starts taking notes. With a subset of those, he starts writing. There are multiple filters in place. It sounds like Stross screens ideas based on a combination of how interesting the idea is, how equipped he is to execute it (is it a story that he’ll be able to write?), and how sellable the book might be.

I’ve got some ideas about how to get better ideas, but before I write them up, I have to figure out which ones are the good ones. Then I have to write them up in a way that makes sense. Similar process – there’s a funnel of blog posts too.

In all of these processes of innovation, the problem is rarely lack of ideas. People and firms usually get stuck either because they have problems selecting the best ones, of they have problems executing the ideas. Those are the things that we need to get better at to be more innovative.

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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