One of the problems with the Western education system is that it teaches that for most questions there is one correct answer. Examinations with multiple choice questions force the student to try to select the right answer and avoid the wrong ones. So when our students leave school they are steeped in a system that says find the ‘right answer’ and you have solved the problem. Unfortunately the real world is not like that. For almost every problem there are multiple solutions. We have to unlearn the school approach and instead adopt an attitude of always looking for more and better answers.
To be really creative you need to generate a large number of ideas before you refine the process down to a few to test out. To make your organization more innovative you have to increase the yield. Why do you need more ideas? Because when you start generating ideas you generate the obvious, easy answers. As you come up with more and more ideas so you produce more wacky, crazy, creative ideas – the kind that can lead to really radical solutions.
The management guru Gary Hamel talks about ‘corporate sperm count’ – the virility test of how many ideas your business generates. Many managers fear that too many ideas will be unmanageable but the most innovative companies revel in multitudes of ideas.
When BMW launched its Virtual Innovation Agency (VIA) to canvass suggestions from people all round the world it received 4000 ideas in the first week. The Toyota Corporation in-house suggestion scheme generates some 2 million ideas a year. Even more remarkably, over 90% of the suggestions are implemented. Quantity works.
Thomas Edison was prolific in his experiments. His development of the electric light took over 9000 experiments and that of the storage cell around 50,000. He still holds the record for the most patents – over 1090 in his name. After his death 3500 notebooks full of his ideas and jottings were found. It was the prodigiousness of his output that led to so many breakthroughs. Picasso painted over 20,000 works. Bach composed at least one work a week. The great geniuses produced quantity as well as quality. Sometimes it is only by producing the many that we can produce the great.
When you start brainstorming or using other creative techniques the best idea might not come in the first 20 or the first 100 ideas. The quality of ideas does not degrade with quantity – often the later ideas are the more radical ones from which a truly lateral solution can be developed.
What do you do when you have a mountain of ideas and suggestions? You sort them, analyse them and try out those with the most potential. You set criteria against which you can evaluate the ideas. (See the blog – How to Evaluate Ideas). The really promising ideas are critically examined from the perspectives of technical feasibility, customer acceptance and profitability. If they pass these hurdles they move rapidly to a prototype phase. They are then tested in the harsh reality of the marketplace where a sort of accelerated Darwinism occurs – only the fittest survive. The interesting ideas should be kept in a database and allowed to incubate. When you revisit them later you may well find that you now see a way to adapt or combine them into something worthwhile.