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Ideaflow: Every Problem Is an Idea Problem


CREATIVITY is “the capacity to keep generating ideas after the first one that’s ‘good enough.’” The problem is that most of us stop right there. How do you move past that first good enough idea?

The irony of the creative process is that we limit our creativity just when we need it the most. When we’re under pressure, we default to the known and familiar approach even when it clearly won’t suffice. It feels safer to fail by doing the expected thing than risk looking foolish by trying something new.

Moving beyond that first good enough idea is the subject of Ideaflow: The Only Business Metric That Matters by Stanford d.school professors Jeremy Utley and Perry Klebahn.

Why is creativity important? “Creativity is the craft of problem solving” and as such it should be on the top of everyone’s list. “Every problem is an idea problem.” That’s a productive way of thinking about creativity and everyone’s need for it. “A problem you know how to solve is really just a task, and action that requires a given amount of time and effort to complete. A problem is something you don’t even know how to approach. A true problem responds only to new ideas.

Ideaflow is a measure of creativity. It is the “number of novel ideas a person or group can generate around a given problem in a given amount of time.” It is expressed like this:

ideas / time = ideaflow

The value if the measurement lies in seeing how you are learning to activate and enhance your creative potential over time and to identify creative bottlenecks on your team. “The important thing is that you take the same measurement regularly, using the same duration and a similar prompt, ideally the same kind of idea generation you’d benefit from in the normal course of your work” whether it’s an email your putting off responding to or trying to determine a path to profitability.

Utley and Klebahn offer techniques to help you improve your ideaflow and teach you the habits and techniques required to generate, test, and implement breakthrough ideas.

They divide it into two parts: “Innovate, where we explain the entire pipeline from ideation through experimentation, and Elevate, where we offer our most powerful techniques for improving creative outcomes.” Here they are, with some notes taken from each part of the process.


Measure Tomorrow’s Success in Today’s Ideas

Ideas are future profits. No mater how stable your industry of secure your market position, tomorrow eventually becomes today. Without Ideas, you won’t have a tomorrow.

Amplify Ideaflow

When a leader puts today’s needs ahead of tomorrow’s inevitabilities, they can blame the economy, technological disruption, and hungry competitors when their shortsightedness catches up with them.

Ideaflow grows slowly at first, particularly if you’ve thought of yourself as a noncreative person for most of your life. Be patient with yourself and get these fundamental habits in place before you suggest them to others. If your peers and direct reports don’t see you capturing your own ideas, they aren’t going to feel safe taking their own pencils out. Show, don’t tell.

Flood Your Problem with Ideas

The secret to coming up with good ideas is coming up with many more ideas. What sets winners apart is volume.

Maximizing a team’s creative output means alternating between individual and collaborative idea generation. You’ll never arrive at the same breadth of possibilities without the help of other people.

If people aren’t aware of the correlation between quantity and quality, persisting past the first good idea can be interpreted as perfectionism. Wasteful. People get annoyed when one contributor keeps throwing out new ideas when the majority is forming a consensus.

Build an Innovation Pipeline

Since perceived effort and risk stymie the capacity to think big, it helps to lower the pressure. We do this by establishing a testing pipeline for ideas. A validation process gives ideas an outlet, someplace to go other than two buckets labeled Yes and No.

When you select ideas for testing, as opposed to full-on implementation, all you’re committing to is a quick, scrappy test. This mindset frees you to evaluate your ideas on their merits alone. Creating a pipeline to validate your ideas is crucial to maintaining ideaflow.

Test > Analyze Results > Refine > Test Again

Put Your Ideas to the Test

Design experiments not to confirm your existing beliefs but to challenge them.

Experiments are how we unearth hidden opportunities. You’re listening for the buzz of interest and attention. Sometimes you can even pick out an idea that’s adjacent to the one you’re trying to validate. Chasing the wrong idea can lead you to the right one if you’re willing to pivot.

Make the World Your Lab

As you adopt an experimental mindset and begin to see the benefits of real-world testing, you will become more comfortable with taking small risks now that forestall bigger ones down the road.

When the results of a test are inconclusive or otherwise counterintuitive, consider your methods before consigning the idea to oblivion.


Mine for Perspectives

Divergent thinking is crucial to explore the full space of possibilities before converging on the most promising direction. Volume and variety of input are both critical to healthy ideaflow. Nothing elevates creativity like the serendipitous meeting of different minds.

Think, who’s the last person I’d ever ask about this? A team who can draw on a broader range of analogies reaches uncharted territory much faster.

Shake Up Your Perspective

Reverse your assumptions. Conducting an Assumption Reversal is about identifying what you’re taking for granted about a situation and deliberately assuming its opposite is true.

Curiosity can pull you where discipline and willpower would otherwise have to push. Managed deliberately and strategically, curiosity can be an extraordinarily powerful force for innovation. Curiosity is a way of getting people to observe more closely, think more deeply, and imagine more vigorously.

Stoke Curiosity

When the answers run dry, ask a better question. Even if you start with a provocative question, there’s only so much you can do by looking at a problem from one angle. When ideaflow ebbs, move your frame. Don’t wait for things to fizzle out before thinking about other questions. Instead, generate lots of frames systematically at the start.

You can’t generate hundreds or even thousands of divergent ideas without a steady diet of divergent inputs: new ideas, new approaches, new technologies. Consume the same stuff as everyone else does and expect your ideas to cluster closely around the expected and familiar.

Encourage Creative Collisions

According to neurobiologist Morten Friis-Olivarius, the “brain is incapable of producing new material from scratch.”

Always begin with a frame. Before venturing out in search of inspiration, articulate the problem you’re trying to solve as an HMW (How Might We … X?) question. Then translate that into a prompt for Analogous Exploration by asking, “Who does X really well?” Now, get out of the conference room and start walking.

To ensure a steady flow of new ideas when you need them, make a habit of exposing yourself to unexpected inputs.

Untangle Creative Knots

Logjams are not only inevitable but crucial parts of the creative process.

If we don’t simultaneously carve away less important uses of our time to create space for reflection and contemplation—distance from the problem at hand—we only undermine the effort to boost ideaflow.

When you realize you’re going in circles, turn to Tactical Withdrawal first. Find a quiet spot and spend a few minutes thinking or, better yet, doing something lightly distracting so your subconscious can do its work.

Tactical Withdrawal: shower, swim, task switching, read, pull weeds, woodworking, nap, talk, move

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