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Idea Generation: Where Do Good Ideas Come From?

Great ideas don’t just come as eureka moments from geniuses. There are approaches that can be used to make us better ideators and problem solvers. There are also approaches that organizations can use to foster better ideas for innovation. 

What’s a good idea?

For this post we’re talking about ideas that drive innovation. For an idea to drive innovation, it must not only be executed, but it has to provide value to the organization. In our post, what innovation actually means, we explain this in more detail. The reason it’s important to highlight this now is that there are many elements to a good idea that may only be realized or understood much further downstream. Can the idea be executed? Can it be taken to market, or turned into a competitive advantage? Does it help your organization differentiate itself?  So it’s not enough for an idea to be creative, the idea must be able to create value for the organization.

Good ideas come from great questions

Einstein was reported to have said, “If I were given an hour in which to do a problem upon which my life depended, I would spend 40 minutes studying it, 15 minutes reviewing it and 5 minutes solving it.”

One of our flaws as humans is that we’re not good at free association. Context, cues, suggestions all play important roles in the flow of ideas. Research highlights that asking the right question provides the right prompt for ideas to flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied how Nobel laureates and other creative people achieved their breakthroughs and discovered something interesting. Once they asked themselves the right question, their ideas flowed rapidly.

So what does a good question look like? Start with breaking down the objectives that are important. As an example, David Kelley, the founder of IDEO, wanted to design a product that would enable cyclists to transport and drink coffee while they were riding. To come up with design ideas, you could describe the product. “We need spill-proof coffee cup lids,” or “bicycle cup holders.”  But a much better description includes objectives. “We want to help bike commuters to drink coffee without spilling it or burning their tongues.” This statement is better because it clearly lays out IDEO’s objectives. Help bike commuters: 1) drink coffee, 2) avoid spills, 3) not burn their tongues. Further objectives could include: avoid distractions while biking, don’t contribute to accidents, keep the coffee hot and minimize costs. Going into that much detail before coming up with ways to design the cup holder makes IDEO much more likely to succeed.

Good ideas form slowly

Most good ideas come from what one author called “the slow hunch”. Steven Johnson wrote a book about the natural history of innovation. In it, he discusses how the ideation process is actually a combination of reflection time and connecting with others to share ideas. Combining ideas, building on ideas and critical feedback are important elements of good ideas.

A story that is a good illustration of two important facets of “the slow hunch” is the invention of the Dyson vacuum. Sir James Dyson became frustrated with clogged air filters in his vacuum. The dust in the air filters caused the vacuum to lose suction. He drew inspiration from an industrial cyclone tower he’d recently built at his factory. The tower separated paint particles from the air using centrifugal force (this idea in turn came from what he saw at large industrial saw mills to deal with saw dust). He wondered if this could be applied to vacuums. It’s a good illustration of how ideas combine or build on each other.

The other part of the Dyson story, and the other part of ideas forming slowly, is another unique phenomenon. The process of building something, measuring results, learning and adapting tends to produce the best results (in comparison to working on a comprehensive design or plan). Put another way – ideas benefit from doing vs. thinking. For Dyson this was 5 years and over 5,000 prototypes. If this doesn’t at first seem profound, it should. It points to another interesting human trait about how we learn to ideate.

Successful idea generation leads to more successful ideas

Every time we share an idea that gets executed, the likelihood that future ideas also get executed goes up. In one study, by the sixth successful idea, the likelihood went up to 50%. One in two ideas would go on to get implemented! Interestingly, we don’t learn so well from failure. When it comes to ideas, the romantic notion that we learn from failure isn’t true.

This holds up at an organizational level as well. When organizations focus on easy to solve problems, they build problem-solving muscle. This HBR article reviews a study on improving patient care at healthcare organizations. One group of hospitals focused on identifying and fixing easy to solve problems. The other group focused on deeper analysis and applied pareto to work on the problems which in theory would have the biggest improvements to patient care. The hospitals which had a bias towards action improved patient care more.

To quote the author, “They’re not going to get better by picking the right problem. They’re going to get better by becoming better problem-solvers.”

Brainstorming is not actually a great source of good ideas (unless it’s used properly)

One of the most popular tools for problem solving in many organizations is brainstorming. Yet research has shown that brainstorming doesn’t work. The first premise of brainstorming is that by getting lots of varied ideas, you’re more likely to find the optimal solution. But, brainstorming in groups does not improve the quantity or creativity of potential solutions to a problem. The same number of people coming up with ideas individually always produces more ideas. The other premise of brainstorming is that criticism hinders the flow of ideas. This is also disproved. It turns out that constraint, debate, criticism fuels creativity.

But – there is an important aspect to brainstorming. The latter stages of combining ideas into themes can help lead to better ideas. Remember, good ideas are usually combinations of ideas, or ideas that have been added to. Where brainstorming facilitates this process, it can be a useful tool.

To brainstorm well, take the time to get the question right and let people mull on it and come up with ideas on their own. Then get together and use the brainstorming session to build on, debate, vote on and combine ideas into themes. Afterwards give people some time to reflect on their own and come up with new ideas. Finally, come back together and decide on the best idea. Assign an owner to start working on it and iterating right away. For more on brainstorming specifically, take a look at this post dedicated to brainstorming best practices.


The world around us is changing faster than ever. Organizations that are able to respond fastest will thrive. The process of identifying a problem or opportunity, coming up with an idea and seeing it through is a core skill that can be developed for sustained competitive differentiation.

If you agree with that, then take some time to learn more about how you can build this important skill for yourself and in your organization.

Harness the power of employee ideas.