Monday, January 27, 2014

Idea construction

I'm interested in dispelling a commonly held myth today, the myth that suggests ideas are created once, whole and complete.  Ideas aren't found, they don't emerge.  Good ideas, the ones that get implemented and converted into new ideas, are constructed.

While we enjoy the stories about wildly creative people who are naturally adept at creating ideas out of thin air, customers and markets celebrate new products that deliver unexpected value.  The difference between creativity and innovation is in the delivery.  While we celebrate and appreciate creativity, it's the transition to valuable new products and services that fill unmet needs that customers value.  And to do that well, most ideas don't emerge, they are constructed.  What really matters is how they are constructed, and the "construction engineers" and processes that produce the final result.

Architects and Builders

For a reference point, let's consider perhaps one of the most famous architects of the 20th century, Frank Lloyd Wright.  His buildings and houses, at least on paper, were interesting, stunning masterpieces.  His work spanned the gamut, from commercial buildings to personal homes.  One of my favorites is Falling Water, which incorporates a natural stream into the design. 

Wright was a visionary, a man who could evoke designs for homes, buildings and furniture out of thin air.  He was a bit of a tyrant, ignoring feedback and input into his designs, however, and part of his legacy is that many of his buildings aren't structurally sound.  While he was a visionary architect and designer, many of his buildings relied on construction that wasn't possible at the time he was building, or required tradeoffs that people who used the buildings found unacceptable.

Builders, who produce the solutions that customers actually use, and frequently interact with customers as the product is being developed, are far more practical.  They have to translate the idea on blueprints to a real product, service, or building.  They have to contend with environmental conditions, site locations, real concerns of the consumer, and financial obligations.  This means that they often alter the designs of the architects, to make a design fit a specific location or need.

In this analogy, designers and architects are divergent thinkers, while engineers and builders are convergent thinkers.  What would be very helpful would be for each to adopt a bit of the other's perspective.

Constructed not Emergent

Far too often, in any business setting, executives and managers wait for what I like to call the perfect "emergent" idea - that is, the idea that is formed in perfection and can be implemented quickly and without change.  The only ideas that match this definition, perfect and quickly implemented, are ideas that are very incremental, because typically only very incremental changes can be implemented quickly and have little risk.  When idea generation and other activities don't produce ideas that are evidently perfect and quickly implementable, the executives often throw up their hands and declare idea generation a failure.  What they fail to realize is that hidden in the pile of "imperfect" ideas are nuggets of great value, if they'll allow a little experimentation, combining and construction to begin.  Ideas are rarely perfect or implementable after the first iteration, but after review, combining, editing, and constructing from new components and concepts and known solution, far better ideas can be created.  Idea generation doesn't produce perfect ideas.  If it did everyone would drop everything they are doing to spend all their time in brainstorming sessions.  Idea generation produces the raw material for excellent solutions, but you need both an architect and a builder to work together to produce the final result.  Great ideas are constructed with the help of several people who bring different perspectives and capabilities to bear, and do that work over time.  There is no immaculate generation, only a messy iterative process that with the right ingredients and perspectives can create something fresh, unusual and valuable.

It's a matter of verb use

The real problem we face is a choice of words.  When people talk about "finding" ideas or "generating" ideas they assume that good ideas will be produced once, originally, from the whole cloth with little additional work.  What they don't understand is that the best ideas are products of experimenting, constructing and combining, which results in a creative idea that is also a useful and proven concept.  To quote Edison here, "opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work".  Idea generation is both an event and a process.  The event is defined by gathering a team in a room for a few hours to generate raw material that is then combined, tested, evaluated and constructed into a final concept.  In my experience very few ideas sprung complete and unchanged from the idea generation event, yet for some reason many firms expect a "once and done" solution with little follow-on development. 

We need to shift our language to talk about concept construction rather than idea generation. 
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:13 AM


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