The Business of Ideation

Yesterday I posted on “The Business of Doing Business”. It was my slightly tongue in cheek way of starting a discussion about how some folks are selling “how to …” become great at business. It is the old question “how to get really, really, really rich????”. I mapped this out as a process that converts ideas into ongoing value added. And I promised that I would elaborate. Good Lord! Work! Ah well, here goes.

This all starts with having ideas, or ideation, right? After all, you cannot generate value and get really, really rich, if you cannot generate the ideas that produce value.

It is easy these days to get pretty excited about ideation. We are forever worshiping at the altar of genius. Picasso! Van Gogh! Einstein! Newton! They were rare birds! We look with awe at them because they seem different than us. They were somehow better. Why? Errrr … they were creative! They had great ideas! And, of course, stuck in our day to day routines, it feels … sorry to say … as if we don’t.

Some have pointed out that this is complete hogwash. Ok, the above guys and others were indeed, perfectly smart. And they were creative. But if you look more closely at the processes involved in generating the ideas that we attribute to them … things look very different. Ideation is not about being smarter. We are all plenty smart. It is about something different altogether.

Shock! Horror! We are worshiping the wrong gods! Well, this happens.

So what is this all about? The good news is that we actually understand some things about this. The process of generating ideas is first about selection of a focus point or anchor. In common parlance, we call this a question or issue. Ideas are not generated in the form of artifacts or products or theories. We may think so, because ideas sometimes end up in the form of artifacts (like a painting), products (like a computer), or theories (like relativity or evolution). And this is how ideas are presented in textbooks. But that is NOT how they are generated. Ideas are answers to questions. Pure and simple. End of story. BTW, notice that I did not say that ideas are correct answers. They are just potential answers.

Here is a trivial example. You walk out of your house to drive to the store. You reach in your pocket and you realize that you do not have your car keys. Immediately, you say “How stupid!” And you might ask yourself “Ńow where are they?”

Notice that the initial reaction — blaming the self — is not particularly helpful in generating ideas about where the keys are. You might ask yourself why you do this automatically? It may be the echo of past learning, where someone scolded you for doing something that he or she called “stupid”. You might have associated mistakes and stupidity. You might have learned from this that you may be stupid. And you might find yourself rebelling from this learning your entire life!

But ok, back to our scenario. After castigating yourself, you calmed down and generated a question. And perhaps this led to another question. “Hmmm … Where did I put them?”

Aha! In a few seconds, your brain has generated a question and a potential method for answering the question. This method assumes that “I” am the sole user of the keys and that they remain wherever “I” put them. Then, a eureka moment!  “I put them on my desk!” Voila! An idea!  You generated an idea! Wow!

Notice how simple this is? The process remains this simple no matter how complex the question may be. Drum roll please! The trick to generating ideas is to generate questions. They are the “anchors” for ideation. “Why does the sun rise in the east?” “How do I make lasagna?” “What stops me from getting to work on time?” Questions are highly valuable forms of thought because they open the door to cognition.

A brief comment is in order. Most likely, if you are reading this, you have a brain. Your brain automatically strives to answer questions. That is one of the things it just does. Some answers are “automatic” – like the answer to “What is 1 + 1 ?”  the answer just pops up. “2”. This is intuitive thinking — where the answer is hard wired into the brain. You don’t have to come up with it. But other answers are not obvious. Like where you put your keys. You have to consider the problem for a period of time. This “considering” is analytical thinking. Your brain has to generate an idea to answer the question.

Dan Kahneman points out that humans do not like to do analytical thinking and we do not do it very often during the day.  We cannot because it stops the flow of our activities. In a perfect world, car keys would never get lost, n’est ce pas? We don’t like standing there in front of our house, chin in hand, pondering where our car keys have gone to. We much prefer intuitive thinking, where the brain can go along on auto pilot.

This is a very important observation. It answers the question why some of us have difficulty generating ideas. It is because we like our auto-pilots too much. The more we are on auto-pilot, the more we are using answers to questions that we believe are relevant rather than asking questions to generate better answers. Relying too heavily on auto-pilot freezes the world into a pre-fab image of it. In other words, we should use auto-pilot but not believe in it so much. We need instead to reserve capacity for questioning and thank the Lord when questions arise.

Part of this infatuation with auto-pilot is human nature. And part of it is cultural. Have you noticed how many cultural signals encourage you to accept answers to questions that you may not have even asked? Like how to whiten your teeth, color your hair, regrow hair that has fallen out, impress the neighbor and so on. Mihaly Csikszentmihaly points out in his book “Flow” that culture does not provide these answers for your benefit. We tend to think so, but in fact, culture exists for other reasons altogether.  It just so happens that its purposes are met when you believe that you are satisfied. And so, culture over does it.

So, if you want to start generating ideas, take a step back from your auto-pilot. Ask yourself “why am I doing this?” Or you might ask “how could I do this better?” Or you might ask “What am I doing?” If you hear your inner voice respond with some emotion “Isn’t it obvious, you idiot?” you have strong evidence of a tendency to auto-pilot. That is an urge is to defend the status quo — or pre-supposed value — of an answer rather than to allow questions to emerge. Remember, the more you are defending answers, the less you will be questioning, and the less capacity you will have for ideation. Once again, to start generating ideas, you simply need to reserve the capacity to step back from auto-pilot and ask some basic questions about it.

If you want to delve deeper into this process, check out this post from my strategic thinking blog. And if you want more, check out this short blog post by another author on the importance of asking the right questions.

For me, the above line of thought generates a question. Our intuition appears to be highly satisfying.  “But what is behind this “apparent satisfaction”? Can we also generate satisfaction by learning how to generate better questions?

Errr … I will have to think about that. In the meantime, I readily admit that if you read this post thinking it will earn you lots and lots of money, I have totally wasted your time. We are not yet talking about “value added propositions”. We simply opened the door to question the current state of mess that we live in. So what separates ideas that have value from the rest of the dross? I will generate some ideas to answer that question next.

Stay tuned!


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