The Myths of Ideas Part 2

One of the more frequent questions in my seminars is “can you have too many ideas?”

The simple answer is yes.  The more complex and provocative answer is yes and no.

The classic story behind my answer comes from Robert Sutton, Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University.  Sutton related a story about Steve Jobs in the Harvard Business Review.

“Yahoo.. had Steve Jobs in to address their top 100 or so bosses. Jobs advised them that killing bad ideas isn’t that hard — lots of companies, even bad companies, are good at that. He insisted that what is really hard — and a hallmark of great companies — is killing good ideas. For any single good idea to succeed, it needs a lot of resources, time, and attention, and so only a few ideas can be developed fully. The challenge is to be tough enough to do the pruning so that the survivors have a chance of being implemented properly and reaching their full potential.”

If you are an idea-driven company like IDEO or Pixar having 1,000+ plus ideas on a problem challenge or project is not only typical, it’s expected. In every seminar I do, I get participants to create 500 ideas in less than 20 minutes.

But for a typical company, this may seem overwhelming and unnecessary because evaluating or bucketing those ideas isn’t a core or developed skill. 

Sutton has a great take on this:  “…when a lot of ideas are whittled down to a precious few — (there) should (be) two major filtering stages: one where you get rid of the bad ideas and then another where you toss the good ideas that aren’t quite good enough to justify a thinner spread of resources, a greater diffusion of focus, and possibly a more complex customer experience.

Here are two good Sutton questions:

So, getting back to the original question.  “Can you have too many ideas?” 

The answer is “it depends.”

It depends on whether your team or company is trained to create, evaluate, ctivate or park multiple ideas.  It depends on a management team or leader that has the ability to kill good ideas because you’ve created a Frankenstein project where ideas compete for attention and actually hinder.  And it depends on whether or not individuals are trained to come up with more than usual quota of ideas.

Do you know how to cluster ideas? Are you familiar with affinity mapping?

Look for Idea Myths, Part 3 coming soon.




The Myths of Ideas

In 1900, Mark Twain gave a speech called “The Disappearance of Literature” and told the rapt audience:

“I don’t believe any of you have ever read PARADISE LOST, and you don't want to. That's something that you just want to take on trust. It's a classic, just as Professor Winchester says, and it meets his definition of a classic -- something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”

Ideas often follow in the same territory.

Everyone wants good ideas, but most don’t want to do the heavy lifting and difficult decision making to bring those ideas to life. Like life, ideas can be messy.  They interfer with the anticipated order of things.

I believe that one of the biggest myths about ideas is that you have to act on them. *

In seminars, I’ve coined a phrase: “Ideas aren’t mandates.”

Ideas, especially provocative or disruptive ones, are often perceived as threats.  And smaller, more incremental ideas are sometimes seen as a nuisance – an extra note on an already well-written song.

What I am talking about is mental plasticity or agility.  It is being truly open to ideas. It’s about listening, entertaining, discussing, deliberating, or tabling ideas -- no matter how seemingly disruptive.

To put this in context, many of my seminars begin with quick experiment with Ned Herrmann’s brain dominance theory. So participants fall into one of four thinking styles. 

Of the four thinking styles, there is a one that has a bias for action.  In a group, this trait is highly valued.  But participants in this group literally “wince” when a new idea is put on the table. 

The idea here is not to let new ideas derail you – but allow them to speak – sometimes softly and sometimes loudly.   

* By acting on ideas – I mean the need to put them into action not the more embracive term of act as any mental effort or consideration.






The four key questions you should ask yourself everyday.

In 2007, the late Arthur B. (Andy) VanGundy wrote one of the seminal books of his career, Getting to Innovation: How Asking the Right Questions Generates the Great Ideas Your Company Needs.

In my career as an innovation and creativity coach, questions have always been the sine qua non of innovation and equally as important in leadership effectiveness.  My guiding principle at Inotivity is that innovation isn’t simply what you know, but how you think.

One of my favorite stories comes my friend and colleague Kevin Murnane, adjunct instructor at Kellogg Graduate School of Management and founder of Behtrics.], Inc.  At Kellogg, he helped design the first Leadership Coaching Class for MBAs and Executive Coaching.

We were talking about decision-making and smart questions. He told me about an executive who wanted to change careers.  She wanted to leave a career in corporate America and become a professional comedian.

Together, Kevin and his client dived deep into the pros and cons of making such a dramatic change.   Ultimately, the client was on the fence.  Kevin looked at her and said, “I know what you are willing to give up to make this happen, tell me what you aren’t willing to give up?”

This single question cut through to the heart of how smarter decisions are made.

Recently, I read Susan Scott’s terrific book, Fierce Leadership. (By “Fierce” she doesn’t mean menacing, cruel, and threatening but rather robust, intense, and strong.) 

She advises executives and managers to ask themselves four basic questions:

1.  What’s the most important thing I should be talking about today?

2.  What do I believe is impossible for me to do, that if were possible, would change everything?

3.  If nothing changes, what are the implications?

4.  What’s the conversation that has my name on it? The one I’ve been avoiding for days, weeks, months, and years?  Who is it with and what is the topic?  When will I have it?

Imagine what you could accomplish if you asked these questions everyday?


Link to Susan's book:

Link to Andy's book:

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The Seven Deadly Sins of Content Marketing Part 1

Let’s begin on the analytical side.  According to my favorite statistician and writer, Craig Smith, there are (as of August) 1.5 billion Facebook users.  That’s equivalent to one in six humans on the planet.

More specifically there are 699 million Facebook users visiting over 50 million Facebook pages.

If we add Twitter to the mix, we have a total of 500 million users sending 400 million tweets per day.

To quote Chris Brogan and Julian Smith about these staggering statistics, “So just being there isn’t enough.  If you build it, they won’t come.”

Like  Mamet's GlenGarry leads, the fans and followers are coveted by all, but all most companies are getting are the steak knives.  How do we reach them? How do we engage with them?

That brings us to the human side.

They come (most willingly) to social media for many of the same reasons they consume other media – for information, for entertainment, for community, and because like Everest, it’s there.

Like most human endeavors, the sins (real or imagined) come with territory and we can apply them to virtually any industry.  Here is the first of what I believe to be the seven sins of social content marketing.

 #1.  Antisocial

One of the most remarkable modern revolutions was the fact that social media platforms were created from the bottom up, not from the top down. 

Microsoft and Apple did not develop Facebook or Twitter or YouTube. 

They came from independent thinkers and doers who just happened to be relatively young.  Companies and brands have always been about command and control.  The revolution meant that they had to give up some control to participate.

A decade ago, an angry letter, to let’s say a big bank, typically got buried somewhere in a file in consumer relations. Today, it is instantly broadcast on social media. 

Companies can’t always control the message. That’s the outcome of the revolution. Period.

To think about social media as merely a forum for talking about your company and not listening is one of the great sins.  It is, in essence, antisocial behavior.  Social gives the company bully pulpit to the public and that's unknown territory.  A few years ago McDonald's invited fans to tell stories.  But the stories weren't all about growing up and the memories that the Golden Arches helped create. But the stories of "problems."

And even the term content “marketing” is problematic, not because marketing is bad, but because it doesn’t fully embrace the true social ethos.  It’s not part of the covenant.  I say content marketing but the sin applies to social media in general.  Ultimately, whatever is pushed or pulled into a digitial conversation is content.

In most cases it doesn’t cost a company a great deal to push social content, but it does cost money to actively listen to fans. You have to invest in listening.  And for many (especially smaller) companies it’s a tremendous budget and time challenge.

I serve up the sin of “antisocial” because it is about mindset.  For some companies, social media is another straw on the camel's back.  They don’t want to participate, but feel compelled to.  They have to stay in the game, even if they don’t like the rules of the game.

Being social is the price of participation and kudos to those companies and individuals who understand and embrace the good, the bad and the terrifying of social media.










Marissa Mayer, Creativity, and Productivity. The Yahoo Paradox.

Last May, Clive Thompson wrote a wonderfully provocative article in Wired about Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and the infamous work at work what hitting the long tail stage.

“When Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer banned her employees from working at home earlier this year, she sparked a culture war over How We Work Today. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” the head of Yahoo HR wrote in a memo. “We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.

Pundits and executives said Mayer was nuts: Telecommuting offers family-friendly flexibility, and research shows that people who work remotely are far more productive, right? Others shot back in her defense, citing the “water-cooler effect”: You only get innovative, breakthrough ideas when staff work face-to-face and exchange ideas serendipitously…”

Thompson summed up the problem in simple four words: "…both sides are right. Telework makes you more productive, and working together makes you more creative. And therein lies a paradox. The real challenge for people who run modern organizations is understanding what type of thinking they want to do, not where to do it.

He sites a study Isaac Kohane, a professor at Harvard Medical School, who looked at 35,000 biomedical papers published from 1999 to 2003, each with at least one Harvard author. Then he measured how influential the papers were, based the frequency of citations by other academics.

“Geography trumped: The physically closer that the first author listed on the paper was to the last, the more influential their paper became. “It’s whether we can chat and have extemporaneous talks,” Kohane says. “It’s serendipity.”

He also writes about an Arizona State team studied three tech firms using “sociometric badges” that monitored location and proximity to track employee interaction. “Again, face-to-face won out. On days the teams were most creative, they were also closest to each other and most physically active. “

Thompson makes the case that organizations also need productivity—six hours of mental peace to finish a single complex piece of work. Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom took employees at a huge Chinese travel agency and randomly assigned some to work from home while others worked in the office. The result? The stay-at-homes did 13 percent more overall.

Productivity and creativity aren’t always found in the cube farm.

Thompson continues: “The trick here is for groups to employ a new skill: metacognition. That’s thinking about thinking. Rather than obsessing over the apparent dichotomy between productivity and creativity, managers and employees need to assess what type of mental work they’re doing on any given day and gravitate to where it’s best suited. Doing Mad Men–style “aha” groupthink? Stay in the office. Need to crush that 90-page memo on paper-clip appropriations? Seems like the kind of thing best handled at home, possibly in your underwear. One-size-fits-all policies—like the one at Yahoo—are too crude for today’s white-collar toil.”

My experience in working at home was in Los Angeles working on financial clients for a direct marketing firm.  Because my daily commute was over an hour,  (The company moved to the hinterlands after I started working there) working at home was a privilege and a blessing. I worked longer hours to ensure I wouldn’t lose the privilege.

I was also a freelance creative for advertising agencies.  I worked on deadline and got the work done. Typically, the less time I spent at the agency, the more productive I was.

I don’t think Mayer’s initiative is wrong. Yahoo needed a dose of adrenaline and sense of purpose.  And I do think that creativity can thrive at the individual level.  It is matching the talents, strengths and working styles of individuals and allowing the opportunity to put them where they add the most value. 

It’s a question of trust and human nature. 

Thompson sums up the dilemma of either/or with and.

“The smartest organizations will be the ones that understand these subtleties and flow with them. The only way to win this culture war is not to play.”




Creativity and the Learning Organization Part 1

In 1990, Peter Senge, rocked more than a few organizational worlds when he wrote, The Fifth Discipline.  Senge is the Director of the Center for Organizational Learning at the MIT Sloan School of Management.  Harvard Business Review identified The Fifth Discipline as one of the seminal management books of the previous 75 years.

The opening his book is as provocative as it is memorable.  “From a very early age, we are taught to break apart problems, to fragment the world.  This apparently makes complex tasks and subjects more manageable, but we pay a hidden, enormous price.  We can no longer see the consequences of our actions; we lose our intrinsic sense of connection to a larger whole.  When we then try to “see the big picture,” we try to reassemble the fragments in our minds, to list and organize all the pieces.  But, as physicist David Bohm says, the task is futile – similar to reassemble the fragments of a broken mirror to see a true reflection.”  * 

Senge’s core belief is that most companies have the delusion of learning from experience.  “The most powerful learning comes from direct experience.  Indeed, we learn eating, crawling, walking and communicating through direct trial and error.”  He continues, “But what happens when we can no longer observe the primary consequences of our actions?”

“When our actions have consequences beyond our learning horizon, it becomes impossible to learn from direct experience.”

The core-learning dilemma that confronts organizations is that “we learn best from experience but never directly experience the consequences of our most important decisions.”

So why revisit The Fifth Discipline after 23 years?

As a business facilitator, I recognize that there is always a guru de jour.  Companies that have learning initiatives begin to have “a been there, done that” reaction to revisited anyone from Peter Drucker to Tom Peters.  This is often true in innovation training – where the fundamentals don’t change, but the words do.

Senge and his co-authors recognized this when they wrote The Dance of ChangeThe Challenges of Sustaining Momentum in Learning Organizations.

Understanding that novelty (by its very definition) has a life cycle, I believe we need to exercise more creativity in bringing new life and perspective to ideas and processes that are fundamentally ageless.

Question:  Do you currently feel that in your organization you are part of an open system and are aware of what the consequences of your actions are companywide?  Or do you feel that you are in silo and only see the immediate consequences within your department?

In the next blog, I will look at reframing and restating Senge’s concept of “a lever” or leverage points in a system and the disciplines of a learning organization.







A modest proposal: A new definition of innovation.

Innovation is a one the great Rorschach words.  Nearly everyone defines it a bit differently.  It has been overused, (293,000,000 results on a single Google Search) over-hyped, and often misunderstood.

At Solution People in Chicago, leading innovation coach Gerald Haman defined it as simply as “ideas that create value.”  Behind that verbal tip of the iceberg was a lifetime of teaching the creation and implementation of ideas and an even deeper understanding of what value means the consumer and social marketplace.

Why is defining the word "innovation" so important to innovation teachers and purveyors of the gospel of innovation?

There are a handful of Fortune 500 companies who have elevated innovation to an art form (Apple) and other Fortune 500 companies who have been seriously burned by failed innovation efforts.  So imagine standing up in front of both groups and saying the word “innovation” and you’ve already divided your audience. 

It’s the Rorschach effect.

So innovation teachers try to define it precisely to get buy in to talk about process.

For example, Larry Keeley and his co-authors (Ryan Pikkel, Brian Quinn, and Helen Walters) have written an excellent book Ten Types of Innovation.  Their definition: “Innovation is the creation of a viable new offering.”  This seemingly simple definition has an additional four call outs to further explain what they mean behind each of these words.

It’s simple and if you do even a modest deep dive in the book, it’s an excellent working definition. In fact, it shineswhen discussing the first six of the innovations which are focused on the innermost workings of a business. (i.e. profit model, network, structure, process, product performance and product system.)  

Do we really need to add yet another definition to the lexicon?

In my seminars, I have used a definition of innovation that I have evolved over the years.   In 2007, I was inspired by Jim Kilts’ book, Doing What Matters:  How to Get Results That Make A Difference.

It’s easy to describe Kilts’ book (as articulated by Wally Bock) “what goes on in an experienced CEO's head when he takes over a company that needs to turn around."

Jim Kilts was a successful CEO at Kraft and led turnarounds at Nabisco and Gillette.

My innovation definition:  Creating what matters.

Like Keeley et al, it needs a deeper dive or context.  The difference?  “Innovation as a viable new offering” and “creating what matters.”

Keeley would argue that viability means “returning value to you or your enterprise.”  The definition is based on two criteria:  “the innovation must be able to sustain itself and return its weighted cost of capital.”

As good a definition as it is, I see it as company or entrepreneur centric.  My definition is customer centric.

The innovation must matter to the customer – somewhere along its evolution from idea to product or service. 

Take Pixar for instance.  They pioneered many advances in CGI animation. But would they be considered an innovation in 1979 when the original company was founded? Or when they released Toy Story in 1995?  In a span of over a decade it neither returned a value or cost of capital. Keeley, et al, did not put a time limit on when an innovation is sufficiently anointed, but it is easy to see how limiting that definition can be.

Creating what matters (audience centric) is also limiting, but I feel it offers a slightly more flexible approach to thinking about innovation. 

In the Keeley definition, Pixar would not technically be an innovation until Toy Story.  In my definition, the audience of advertisers (through commercials) and the audience of one (Investor Steve Jobs) was technically an innovation earlier in its evolution.

Another compelling case.  Eienstein's Theory's.  Most of his theories were published in 1905.  They did not meet any of the criteria of Keeley's definition. So these ideas were not innovations until nuclear power was advanced in the 1940s.  But I do believe that these innovations of thought were accepted much earlier by an audience of physicists.  

Both definitions are worthy of discussion and improvement. And Ten Types of Innovation is one of the best books on innovation you'll find today.

I welcome your feedback at

Happy innovating.