Ideas and their role in innovation

John W Lewis's picture
Chat Date: 
Thu, Apr 25, 2013

What is the role of ideas in innovation?

Ideas play a major role in most discussions of innovation and, particularly, of the management of innovation. Many approaches seem to be based on a model in which all innovation is triggered by ideas. Is this true? Is this an accurate representation of the reality of innovation? If it is accurate, is it complete? And does it cover all cases?

Peter Drucker, in his book “Innovation and entrepreneurship”, identified seven types of potential source of innovation. The “idea” was not one of those; he recommended that it not to be dismissed, but advised that it was unreliable compared with the seven sources.

Understanding the ways in which innovation actually happens is important to the effective management of innovation. Whether this relates to the specification, design, development, implementation, testing, or operation of processes for innovation management, it is important that business models, process models and system models match reality as closely as possible. 

Questions 1 and 2 relate to this issue of the importance and timing of the contribution of ideas to innovation.

How do ideas relate to their context?

From the perspective of #innochat, the relationship between ideas and innovation has been brought into focus by the collaboration with the #ideachat people, in joint bimonthly #innoidea chats. Also recently, #ideachat explored an interesting development in chat management, by holding an “unchat”. No, it is not that they didn’t chat! It was that they had no predefined topic for their chat, in the vein of an “unconference”. Anyone could introduce any ideas for discussion.

This is interesting for two reasons. One reason is that it seems to be in the spirit of ideas that they pop up out of the blue, at any moment, and demand to be captured and discussed. The other reason, is that this highlights a clear distinction from #innochat, which uses framing posts (like this one) to establish the context and the direction of the chat.

This is also perhaps the basis of the complementary relationship between #innochat and #ideachat.

On one hand, it seems that the best ideas are generated without any focus and purpose. These ideas tend to untethered to any need; and the probability that they will be valuable for any particular challenge is likely to be low.

On the other hand, the best ideas about a particular challenge seem to happen after the development of detailed knowledge of the situation, and when not thinking about it but thinking about something else. The probability that these ideas will be valuable is much higher, and not just for any challenge but for the specific challenge that they relate to.

Of course, in the first case, some background knowledge, experience and wisdom is likely to have contributed to the idea. So it is tempting to treat the first as a subliminal version of the second. But if we follow that road we’ll end up analysing our dreams in an more extreme case of  “thread drift” than even #ideachat probably had in mind!

Questions 3 and 4 relate to this issue of the context for ideas.



  1. The importance of ideas to innovation

    Are all innovative developments triggered by ideas? What other experience, knowledge, insights, analysis, and reconnaissance can expose opportunities for innovative development?

  2. Timing of ideas in the innovation process

    In cases in which an idea is the source of an innovative development, when does its contribution occur? Does the idea occur: at the beginning of the process; before, at, or after the mid point; at some other time?

  3. Context of idea initiation

    In what context are valuable ideas generated, developed and evaluated? Do they rain down fully formed at any time from anyone’s shower head or are they only sparked in the minds of people with deep knowledge of the context and purpose when they need them?

  4. Communication of the context and purpose

    If the purpose of innovation activities within an organisation is to identify opportunities (whether initiated by ideas or any other triggers) and to maximise the probability that those opportunities lead to innovative developments, when is the most effective time to communicate the criteria for evaluation and selection of those opportunities?

On a personal note ...

I’ve had a number of stabs at related topics in recent posts and articles:


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