Which Ideas Are the Good Ones?

The problem is, we can’t usually tell in advance which ideas are good and which aren’t.

The New York Times has just published The 10th Annual Year in Ideas. As part of this, they asked Tyler Cowen to comment on the previous reviews. He noted this quote from the introduction to the piece:

The 2001 issue noted that, in its selection of items, ‘frivolous ideas are given the same prominence as weighty ones’; that is easiest to do when we still don’t know which are which.

The issue here for innovation is that we rarely know which is which. I’m tempted to say never.

One idea that he identifies as oversold was from 2005, which said that the $100 laptops would reduce poverty. They haven’t yet. On the other hand, will the impact of computers in the classroom be felt right away, or will we see the greatest impact in 10 years once the kids that have used them are starting their own businesses?

There are two important innovation lessons here:

  • First, we don’t know in advance which ideas are the good ones. So we need a system in place for testing them quickly to help figure out which ideas really are frivolous.
  • Second, innovations often take some time to really show their impact. You have to take this into account when you are trying to manage the innovation process.

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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6 thoughts on “Which Ideas Are the Good Ones?

  1. Tim,

    I would like to add a third point:

    Ideas don’t exist in a vacuum, but combine with other ideas to become important:


    – Mendelian genetics only became important decades after their discovery, when Darwin’t natural selection had taken hold.

    – MP3 players only really became important when i-Tunes came on the scene.

    – Greg

  2. I would dislike a life in which good ideas are selected in advance…how monotonous. But, more importantly, who would be the omnipotent individual or government agency selecting the “good ideas”? This is where monotony and scary meet. Just keep writing down all of your ideas and vet them over time, friends, and beer! http://www.myaquanotes.com

  3. Great post but a little high level. On and off for the last year or so I’ve been trying to “flesh out” some very specific approaches and techniques to innovation in business.

    My perspective is that it is not a lack of innovative ideas. It is a lack of a structured process for capture of the innovative ideas and then a lack of key leadership for execution.

    I did an entire series on this topic with a first pass at a structured innovation process. Techniques for incorporating innovation in the enterprise, and methods for managing it.

    Process Execution of Business and IT Innovation

  4. I would like to add to Greg`s comment..

    There are no good or bad ideas in general.

    Idea can be good or bad for a certain market, for a certain customer group or business etc.. So its about ability (and intuition) to understand ideas in context.

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