Myth #3: “We need lots of ideas”

This is one of the most pervasive of the Top 10 Myths of Idea Management, the notion that in order to get good ideas, you need to start with lots and lots of ideas, good and bad. This myth stems from the work of advertising guru, Alex Osborne, in brainstorming in his 1953 book, Applied Imagination. One of the four core rules of brainstorming was:

Focus on quantity: This rule is a means of enhancing divergent production, aiming to facilitate problem solving through the maxim, quantity breeds quality. The assumption is that the greater the number of ideas generated, the greater the chance of producing a radical and effective solution.

And yet, plenty of research has shown that there is little correlation between quantity and quality of ideas, and between quanitity of ideas and eventual outcomes of implemented ideas.

So, back to myth-busting.

Too many ideas Blocks the Pipeline – if the volume of inputs is too great, the evaluation process gets bogged down in too many ideas. This means that review cycles lengthen, submitters get frustrated, good ideas become ‘bad’ as they become almost over-ripe (there is a time and a place for ideas).

Signal to Noise ratio – already the yield of good ideas – that being fit with requirements for a particular initiative – is only 5 – 10% in most cases (see Imaginatik Research note on Volume-Quality Balance). This means that 90 – 95% of content coming into the system will be below the threshold for ‘good’. This large volume of lesser relevant ideas makes it significantly harder for evaluators to find the proverbial needle in the haystack.

Likely to have broad spectrum of ideas – when companies open themselves up to large volumes of submission, this typically means a very broad acceptance criteria for an acceptable idea. Whilst reasonable in concept, this creates a large bulk of ideas that fall outside of the normal business context, to the extend that a firm collects thousands of ideas with no likely owner and no likely implementation path. This creates frustration in the minds of the submitters, and lots of additional work for people managing programs as they are constantly trying to route ideas to the ‘right’ people, mostly in vain.

If one looks at the rationale for having lots of ideas, one quickly sees that this mantra has been propagated by ideation experts, people who focus on the front-end of the innovation process, and have no accountability for the back-end of the evaluation and execution process. For them, the goal is lots of ideas… as this is their own role in the process.

Idea fragments do form an important part of the volume-quality balance. It is rare that an ‘idea’ in its pure form (as inputted into a system) gets moved into production. The best ideas combine fragments of several ideas, plus comments, insights and, of course, pre-existing work.

Fundamentally an organization needs to get the right ideas at right time to right people at sufficient scale.  And clearly there is a notion of appropriate volume. If one only had five ideas, the odds that all five would be good and successfully implemented is very, very slim. Our research, noted above, has developed some suggested guidelines and benchmarks on the right level of volume for a given business challenge.

So, the next time someone tells you that you need lots of ideas, stop, think and work out the outcomes you want before you go collecting thousands, and thousands, and potentially more thousands of fluffy, non-relevant ideas that go no where.


  1. Does Self-Censorship Help Innovation? The Enterprise 2.0 Approach « I’m Not Actually a Geek - June 18, 2009

    […] on the blog of Mark Turrell, CEO of idea management software company Imaginatik, in his post Myth #3: “We need lots of ideas”: The next time someone tells you that you need lots of ideas, stop, think and work out the outcomes […]

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