Ideas lead to innovations. Innovations are the currency of competitiveness. So without ideas, without innovations, one—individually and organizationally—is fundamentally operating on borrowed time. And nowadays, who can afford that? Arguably, the homes that are in foreclosure and the businesses in Chapter 11 reorganization are in those states because somebody—or, more to the point, somebodies—didn’t come up with the necessary ideas and consequent innovations in order to create value, to create, ultimately, wealth.
Developing ideas may be challenging, but it is far from impossible. A few years ago, Jack Foster wrote How to Get Ideas, an engaging book that grew from the experiences that he’d had in what is one of those “creative” occupations, advertising. To his credit, Foster’s advice was more applicable to more people than those who try to capture our interest and imagination for a brief period of time, a capture that, presumably, would lead to commerce at some point along the way. Apparently How to Get Ideas was such a good idea that Foster has produced a second, expanded version of this book. Which is certainly a beneficial thing for those persons who didn’t get the first edition. Foster’s advice is fairly simple and straightforward. For example, he recommends, as many writers on being creative do, that one think that s/he’s creative. While this might seem rather useless, it isn’t like thinking that one is tall if s/he’s manifestly short by most measures or that one is a good dancer if s/he’s more likely to take a header than execute a spin. If you don’t know how to swim, it is probably not in your best interest to think that you do and dive in the deep end. But consider: ideas are intangible, so thinking that you can create ideas can help set you up for thinking up, well, ideas. Many authors in this genre suggest that thinking like a child is useful, which has always struck me as being somewhat naïve (which some might say is the point). Foster puts a good rational behind this: “Adults tend to do what they or other people did the last time. To children there is no last time. Every time is the first time.” And for something to be innovative, it can’t be something that was there the last time.
Even though ideas seem to be difficult to generate (and thus the need for second editions of books on the subject), Arthur B. VanGundy recommends a bit of caution in his Getting To Innovation, an insightful and helpful volume that focuses on the front end of the process. He writes, “Although idea execution remains a fertile area for future research and application, an even more important part of the innovation process requires urgent action: framing organizational innovation challenges at the outset of a project.” In other words, Van Gundy argues that what people need to spend more time doing is work at the front end, determining exactly what it is that one is working to accomplish.
Anyone can have an exciting brainstorm-ing session with hundreds of ideas. Frequently neglected, however, is devoting as much time and attention to clearly defining a ‘presented’ challenge as is given to idea generation,” VanGundy notes. His book is meant to provide an understanding and framework for creating the kinds of questions that need to be posed when people (individuals as well as groups) begin the innovation process. Sure, there can be idea-generating events where ideas are thrown off like sparks in one of those pictures of robotic spot welding on an assembly line, but what matters is the directed fusion, not the random sparks.
Success is a consequence of knowing what one is hoping to achieve. VanGundy sug-gests that too often, people don’t focus on where they are now and where they hope to get to: “It very well may be that innovation fails far more often due to faulty problem framing than faulty idea generation or execution. Most of us have been condi-tioned to accept a problem as given and immediately jump into a search for solutions.” But unless the problem is clearly defined, the solutions, no matter how creative they may be—or seem to be—won’t necessarily help achieve the required ends.—GSV