Ideas are two-a-penny!

John W Lewis's picture
Chat Date: 
Thu, Apr 09, 2015

You probably know on some level that innovation is important to your survival in a personal and/or professional context, although your level of "knowing" might range from being deeply convinced to just coming around to accepting it.

But what innovation is appropriate for you and/or your organization? What new or different things are you looking for, and where are you looking for them?

Are you really looking for "ideas"?

The froth of innovation

Recently, I have seen a variety of suggestions that many people are gradually coming around to understanding that much of the current thinking about "ideation" is very superficial and might well be fundamentally misguided. Although, of course, if this is just appearing in public, it might suggest that many practitioners have known this for quite some time.

There was a reference to this issue in our #innochat framing post of last week on "Rational Innovation" where Mark Hutchinson of EY referred to many innovation initiatives ending in crushing disappointment.

Scott Propp (@ScottPropp) , a regular innocat, referred me to this article by Tim Berry (@TimBerry) All Ideas are Brilliant Before They Are Executed on looking in the wrong place referring to ideas as "sadly unrealistic suggestions".

Andy McLean (@InsaneMcLean) describes how looking for ideas without a clear objective is pointless.

Matt Greeley, (@BrightideaHQ) well known to #innochat and CEO of Brightidea, tweeted:

1/ Thinking about "inverted innovation" today
2/ Assessing demand on kickstarter before products are built.
3/ VCs posting *their* ideas to IdeaMarket with a promise of funding.


At last, hopefully, this current era seems to be coming to an end. For how much longer are we going to encourage people to take their "ideas" and throw them at a wall to see whether they stick or, in many cases worse, to throw them over a wall to an anonymous group of people on the other side for evaluation using criteria about which the thrower has no clue? It makes no sense!

The substance of innovation

In my experience, the currently received wisdom about this aspect of innovation and its management bears little or no resemblance to how innovation actually happens. There is a role for ideas in overcoming obstacles and in refining solutions, but they have little or nothing to do with the fundamental opportunity. Arguably, an idea that is "bright" enough is, in fact, an opportunity (but let's not get distracted by semantics … again!); but, most of the ideas that most people generate are exceedingly dull, not (of course!) in eye of the originator, but on any realistic inspection in the field of their supposed application.

To support this view, thankfully, there are plenty of reports from people who have studied the field. For how much longer are we going to continue to ignore the advice of people like Peter Drucker, whose article The Discipline of Innovation of 2002 (reiterating the findings reported in his book of 1985) makes it quite clear that thinking up clever ideas is extremely unlikely to result in valuable innovation.

His main point is that innovation results from thorough analysis and deep understanding of the subject area and the available opportunities, and that there are a number of well defined places in which to look for viable opportunities. He identifies seven major sources of opportunity to innovate, and "ideas" is not one of them.


  1. Where are the opportunities for innovation in your organization most likely to be found?
  2. Would you prefer to know what an opportunity looks like before or after you go looking for one?
  3. Who decides the criteria for evaluation of opportunites and who do they inform about them?
  4. How do votes on the popularity of an idea count against a proof of the viability of an opportunity?
  5. What has any of this got to do with "ideation"?!


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