People often see idea creation as the most important aspect of innovation. We hear people lament, “if only I had the big idea…”. Well, I’m not sure that mindset fits with my experience.

When I heard this concept, I used to reply that "it was easy to come up with ideas, but the hard thing was to come up with the right idea that met all of the requirements”. While this wasn’t wrong, it was incomplete and I like to think that I've formed a more mature perspective that I’d like to share here:

For one thing an idea is nothing without execution. If innovation is ‘something new that creates value’, ideas are the new – the value worth talking about only comes once an idea has been translated from the metaphorical post-it note to its intended market.

No matter how much an idea meets all the requirements on paper – important principles, like MVP (minimum viable product) from Eric Ries’ Lean Start-up, reminds us that to even test if that idea will succeed in the marketplace requires… well, putting some version of it into the marketplace!  But the execution isn’t even the biggest thing wrong with the concept that innovation is all about the big idea. The fascination with ideas tricks us into thinking a given idea itself is where the value is. But really each of these ideas should be viewed as an opportunity to learn.  Ideas, more often than not, represent a concept of something that might be new and different in a system or offer. And they represent an opportunity to test that thing and see what happens. In incremental changes to a system, this just might be enough – a tweak here and a twist there and your idea may improve (and overtime continuously improve) the system.

But most systems are not linear. And this is never more true than when you are experiencing disruptive change (competitive pressure, new technologies etc.) or striving for a breakthrough – testing these ideas will have unexpected consequences. The point of the idea is not to select it and then execute it. The point of the idea is to learn. First, you learn from your co-creators reactions. Then you learn from colleagues you describe it to. Then you learn as you ‘prototype’ an idea. As well described in the Design Thinking philosophy and elsewhere, any sketch, prototype or test device is not a pass/fail exam as our school papers once were, rather they are a chance to learn from customers – Is the change relevant? Is it obvious and intuitive? Is it an improvement? Is it even solving the right problem?

In all of these cases, it’s not a day and night judgement.  All throughout this time, we’re hopefully learning to build a richer picture of the criteria for strategic success. What are those technical, commercial and human factors that are necessary (or not) for strategic success? How can we translate that magical creative spark or insight into a successful product, process or offer?

It is also true that rarely is an innovation of note the result of one idea in isolation. It is the combination of ideas (and the learning from them) over many iterations often leading to the generation of specific new projects, strategic directions, products, processes and offerings. Furthermore, during this process, there is no one person/ entity that has the solution as we increasingly see ideas (and knowledge) from many different partner organisations brought together to conceive and deliver breakthrough innovations. It comes back to this belief – ideas are just a part of the process and by themselves, they are (controversially perhaps) not of value.

Incidentally, while I do think you can learn from failure, and that we need to expect to try plenty of things that don’t “succeed" in order to innovate, I don’t subscribe to the concept that you learn more from failure than success.  If I fail I only learn one thing that won’t work in one situation (but might…, or might not work in others). If I succeed, I know one thing that will work in at least one circumstance… assuming I’m trying to make something work, while both results have value, I know which I’d rather learn from!

So, do consider carefully where and how to generate ideas. Don’t be precious with them – an idea shared is an opportunity to learn (IP considerations accepted). And more ideas can be helpful (although there is also research showing how the number of ideas is not correlated with the likelihood or size of success). But remember the value of ideas is in what you learn with them – not whether it is “the one”. So go ideate and go learn.