How to Innovate, Part 4: Generate


July 4, 2023

We’re stuck in a vicious cycle.

Bosses and clients need new ideas, so teams put their heads together. They work long hours, late nights, and weekends. They’re looking for the next best thing that will catapult their company into the bull’s-eye of our customer’s attention and solve their biggest business challenges.

The problem is that people are looking for the one great idea.

The home run, the viral campaign, or the silver bullet.

They’re on the hunt for the single thing that will solve their problem.

As you work through the Wheel of Innovation, the whole reason behind the Generate step isn’t to come up with the one idea that you think will address your objective, or even the right idea or the best idea.

This is because if you usher that single source of brilliance into your boss’s office, and they shoot that idea down, you’re left with nothing.

They send you back to the drawing board to come up with the next one idea. Then you go back to your boss for approval, they shoot it down, and the cycle repeats itself.

This is why our careers teach us to avoid risk by avoiding new ideas.

New ideas are scary, unpredictable, and a threat to the status quo.

And, let’s face it, given the choice between maintaining the status quo and having the courage to stick out your neck and try something new, you’ll take the first route.

You’ve seen all the work that goes into fearlessly proposing new ideas, and how quickly they get shot down.

Breaking the vicious cycle

The answer to this never-ending back and forth is to come up with as many ideas as you can. That way, if one gets shot down, you have more at the ready and don’t have to keep repeating the process to present more ideas. You have them in your back pocket, and you’re ready on the spot.

The first three steps of the Wheel of Innovation make all the difference between conventional companies and innovative ones.

Because it’s these three steps that fuel and inspire the idea generation process from a completely different perspective.

Ideas generated from inspiration are powerful, which is why we need the first three steps of the Wheel of Innovation. People struggle to come up with fresh ideas because they don’t have a purpose or structure to them.

We take care of that in the Generate step.

One is the loneliest number

The reason behind coming up with as many ideas as you possibly can is that in order to end up with a few ideas that are better ideas, you have to have to start with significantly more ideas.

This is because plenty of them will be tossed to the side or die a painful death along the way.

You may end up with some great ideas, but they’ll never fly in your company’s culture.

Some could just be wrong timing.

Others could be a lack of priority.

Some could be they just won’t execute well. And you know that there’s plenty that will get crushed under corporate politics and narcissistic egos.

When you take all of this into consideration, you’ll see that it’s a numbers game. In order to have a few new, great, and reliable ideas standing at the end of the Generate step, you need to start out with a lot of ideas.

In the Relate step we looked at How might we…

In the Generate step, we move from the general to the specific.

We’ll ask, what if we tried this? What if we combined two of these to come up with that? All the lists of connections you’ve developed in the first three steps feed into this step to become your list of ideas.

At first, you may come up with enough good ideas that lead to your one great one, address your objective, and then stop.

But you’ll find that the more you go through this process, by the time you get here again, you’ll feel turbocharged, excited, and ready to start reeling off things that pop into your head, seemingly out of nowhere.

With practice, you’ll find that ideas start coming to you as if out of nowhere—just like they do for the uber prolific innovators.

In the Generate step, it’s important not to start talking about why things won’t work right away.

You want to pick out every connection you can.

You literally want to come up with hundreds of ideas.

At that point, you’ll bring the constraints from your objective and use them as a filter for saying yes or no, or as a guide for the ones you choose to iterate. These will be the known limits within which you will need to function.

That may cut your list of 200 ideas to 50. Then you’ll think each of the 50 through and ask questions about priorities, timing, size, scope, resources, and so forth to narrow it down to your brilliant finalists.

It’s these lucky few that will move onto the next step of being pitched.

Divide and Conquer

As you start this step, I’m going to have you break up your Generate work into two parts, leaving the refinement you’ll do with the constraints you came up with until later.

This is purposeful.

You want to come up with ideas without judging whether they’re workable or not. It’s important to keep your mind free and open for as long as possible. As soon as you start to judge the viability of an idea, you kill your mojo, and you get out of the flow. You’re purely looking for fluency in coming up with ideas. We’ll work your constraints in at the right moment. There’s a time and a place for everything, as the saying goes, including your constraints.

How many ideas are enough?

Quantity matters over quality when you’re getting started.

There’s evidence that quality often doesn’t max out until more than 200 ideas are on the table.

In fact, in every field throughout history, the most innovative people produced a lot of output.

Pablo Picasso was one of the most prolific artists of the 21st century. Isaac Asimov wrote more than 400 books. Aretha Franklin recorded 112 charted singles. In a mere five years, Thomas Edison filed for more than 100 patents for inventions that never went anywhere, but he needed to do that to get to the light bulb and the phonograph.

Now you are equipped and ready to move to the last step of the Perpetual Innovation process: pitching the best of the best of your ideas. It’s time to get support and start moving your ideas forward toward extraordinary outcomes.

Photo credit: Canva

About Carla

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author

Carla Johnson helps leaders who are often paralyzed by traditional thinking. They suffer from slow growth, an eroding competitive advantage, low employee engagement, and depleted investor confidence. Their teams lack purpose and progress and constantly battle a resistance to change and new ideas.

As the world’s leading innovation architect, Carla’s spent 20 years helping leaders shatter limits and discover undiscovered possibilities. Through years of research, she’s developed a simple, scalable 5-step process that teaches people how to consistently produce inspired ideas that lead to uncommon outcomes.