Skip to main content
managing

When students would come to legendary Stanford University engineering professor Robert McKee for feedback on an idea, he would refuse until they showed him three others as well. It stressed the importance of having more than one idea to solve a problem or come up with a breakthrough product.

Stanford design professors Jeffrey Utley and Perry Klebahn believe you and your organization can benefit from following the philosophy behind that policy. They argue that idea flow – the number of ideas you can generate – is the only metric that matters in business. So don’t stop at three or four, when faced with a decision. Or even at 10, because often the first ideas are, contrary to what you might expect, the worst ones. Aim for hundreds, they say.

“An organization with a low idea flow is in trouble because it’s running out of an essential resource,” they write in Ideaflow. If you concentrate on generating lots of ideas, that increases the odds of success and can make the decision-making process less stressful.

Every problem, they say, is an idea problem. You want to focus less on quality of ideas and more on quantity. To measure your ability to generate ideas, take an e-mail in your inbox, preferably an important one, set a timer for two minutes, and then write as many different possible subject lines for your response as you can. No deliberation, pausing or judgment.

That gives you an sense of your idea flow. They say over time it will improve, with practice and commitment. Commit to coming up with 10 new ideas every morning. The ideas you generate won’t come from a vacuum; they should be sparked by what has been nagging your brain for attention.

Pick one high-importance problem before bedtime, so your unconscious mind can work on it in your sleep. Don’t worry about finding the biggest problem; choose relatively quickly – there is always tomorrow for another. Then in the morning noodle over it as you shower, eat breakfast, exercise and head to work.

You need at least 10 ideas to start the day, so don’t worry about bad ones – they count, too. “Refuse the temptation to judge which ideas are keepers,” Prof. Utley and Prof. Klebahn stress. “The biggest obstacle to idea flow isn’t lack of ideas. It’s your internal censor.”

Over time, your ability to meet the morning quota will improve, they say. It will undo any counterproductive conditioning against novelty you have been exposed to. You will get comfortable in expressing ideas, even if seemingly silly or outrageous. They note that in their training programs, people come up with 10 ideas in three minutes by not trying to find “good” ones.

Document your ideas, so they aren’t lost. Go for a big writing surface – a whiteboard or large pieces of paper – because a limited writing surface limits your thinking. Combine the discipline of documentation with the rigour of review, regularly going back to look at them again.

But as well as training yourself, you need to train those reporting to you. Don’t grasp at the first (or fourth) suggestion when considering a quandary together. Demand more. When organizing a brainstorming session, make sure you have the right mix of people: Everyone should have enough relevant experience and expertise to offer solid contributions. Limit it to six people; if more than that, have them work in groups of six or fewer and then reassemble.

Gather suggestions before you meet - two from each participant - as seeds for idea generation. Hopefully that will give you an array of diverse possibilities to explore so people will be expansive in the deliberations rather than anchor narrowly around the first idea arising in discussion.

Get everyone in the right mindset with 10 to 15 minutes of warm-ups. A sample question Prof. Utley and Prof. Klebahn offer: “How might we get Alan’s kids to eat their vegetables?” Look for many ideas, building on and branching off from what colleagues say, but also wild inspirations.

In the next 45 to 60 minutes minutes – the session’s time should be limited – put some of the better ideas suggested before the meeting on a whiteboard along with questions to prompt discussion. Then the professors urge you to collect ideas, allow them to simmer, and at the end tally them up. “Knowing the group produced, for example, a few hundred ideas over the course of 60 minutes can be incredibly motivating for everyone who participated,” they say. It clarifies the return on time spent.

The next step, you might figure, is to pick the best idea and run with it. Wrong. Instead, you want to select a number of good ideas and test them quickly. Your idea flow now becomes a validation pipeline, in which you try to get a handle on how they might work out – and perhaps generate more ideas from that, along with refinement, and further testing. It’s undoubtedly different from your current approach. Might it also be better?

Cannonballs

  • KFC’s response to outrage at its promotional message to Germans to celebrate Kristallnacht – widely seen as the start of the Holocaust – with cheese on their crispy chicken was to blame it on a “system error,” specifically a “semi-automated content creation process linked to calendars.” The company promotes around notable days on the calendar and this just tumbled out. A more appropriate explanation might have been “we thoughtlessly link promotions to special days and certainly need to rethink how we do this and implement proper controls.” Taking the blame is a good place for management to start when apologizing, rather than blaming abstract phenomenon seemingly out of their control.
  • Question your successes as much as your failures, advises consultant and former New York Times columnist Adam Bryant.
  • At the same time, consultant David Burkus urges you to consider failure funerals, for which the team - rather than deflecting blame - gathers for 15 to 30 minutes after a setback to mourn the loss and process the failure.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.