Obvious in hindsight

A good friend at college was an ideas-machine; his mind was constantly spitting out ideas. The top draw of his desk was full of scraps of paper on which he’d written jokes that had occurred to him whilst trying to work on his thesis about Chomsky. I’m not sure it was a gift, more of an affliction.

His creative spirit constantly craved stimulation. We shared a basement flat in London and if he were there alone he would be reading a book, with both the radio and the television on full blast.

We were both studying for MAs in the Department of Design Research (now defunct) at the Royal College of Art. It was an academic department set up to study the design process. A small multi-disciplinary department with students from Design, Architecture, Fine Art, Geography, Psychology and more, despite the fact that were only 10 or so students per year. When we all sat down for lunch, the conversation could go anywhere.

Later in life my friend became an advertising creative and put his talents to great use. Over a pint he told me how problematic it was that he tended to have some of his best ideas during the initial client briefing. Doodling away during the client presentation, all that new information stimulated ideas which he used to jot down on his notepad during the meeting. The problem was that if the client realised that he’d just had “the idea” they would be less willing to pay for the work as it appeared to have happened instantly. Why is that?

How often do we work in situations where ideas are similarly undervalued? Employees are paid to be analytic and quantitative, not creative and qualitative. The culture of the organisation is often one of witty put downs, where sarcasm and cynicism get social approbation rather than the new and creative.

When someone finally does have a good idea AND manages to get the cynics to listen to it, they are quick to respond that it is “obvious”, that “they could have thought of that”, and then go and make sure that they are the first to share the idea with senior management. Somehow, because it is obvious after the event, that makes it of little value (as opposed to intense value because it is an idea that people “get” right away). Somehow, because the idea appeared with no conscious gestation, it can have little value in our pay-by-the-hour culture. Yet that one idea, that breakthrough thought, that mould breaking concept could be what saves the company. Without that one idea so much more might never happen.

Our society has recognised that however obvious, ideas have real value and their inventors should be rewarded for it since 500BC when the Greek city of Sybaris declared; “encouragement was held out to all who should discover any new refinement in luxury, the profits arising from which were secured to the inventor by patent for the space of a year.”[i] But despite this we continue to struggle with recognising the value of the creative idea-generators amongst us.

In new product development, many folks talk about “ideation” as being the phase where new product ideas are generated. I hate the word and hate the concept of a “creative” idea generation phase even more. Good products come from good ideas, lots of them.

A successful new product will be based on many novel ideas that have contributed to it throughout its development process. There is rarely a single point in time, or a single concept that leads to success. Usually the best concepts develop over time, as we explore what ideas might mean and whether they offer new and useful ways to understand the landscape of opportunity.

We need good ideas in “ideation”, but also in design, in marketing, in manufacturing, in service and support and in understanding our customers. Each idea is like a tender seedling, it needs nourishment and encouragement to grow and show its potential. Ideas need to build on one another, as each one reveals a new view, new possibilities, and new routes for exploration.

Of course, not every idea is a winner, but we cannot be sure of that until we have given it time to flourish, or perhaps give rise to other ideas which could be winners.

So, is your’s a company which encourages and rewards good ideas, or is it one where an unusual idea is met with a witty putdown? It is important because the former could be generating exciting and disruptive new products in your industry, whereas the latter never will.

[i] From Wikipedia: Charles Anthon, A Classical Dictionary: Containing An Account Of The Principal Proper Names Mentioned in Ancient Authors, And Intended To Elucidate All The Important Points Connected With The Geography, History, Biography, Mythology, And Fine Arts Of The Greeks And Romans Together With An Account Of Coins, Weights, And Measures, With Tabular Values Of The Same, Harper & Bros, 1841, page 1273.

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One Response to Obvious in hindsight

  1. Pingback: Product Management Reader: 19Oct2010 | The Productologist: Exploring the Depths of Product Management

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