Where Do New Ideas Come From?

Where do good – or, even better, great – ideas come from? Let’s start with where they don’t

come from.

As the pace of change continues to increase, as competition becomes more unpredictable,

as customers grow more powerful and find more options, the old sources of great ideas

seem suited to the job of coming up with new ones.

You can’t depend on great ideas coming from the Department of Great Ideas. Or from the

R&D lab or the Innovation Department or from the Skunk Works. That’s not to say that these

operations should be shut down or dismissed. It’s just that they aren’t enough anymore. They

can’t do it alone.

You won’t get the great ideas you need from the vice president of strategy or the head of new

product development. They’ve got hurdle rates to consider, budgetary constraints to

navigate, and lots of competing claims on their time, attention, and political support.

And you definitely can’t wait for great ideas to come from the CEO. He or she may be at the

top of the heap, but that doesn’t mean a thing when it comes to generating the best thinking.

By the time most CEOs actually make it to the top, they’re running on intellectual fumes,

having already spent their creativity in the jobs they had that propelled them to the top. It’s

been a long time since they read, saw, thought, or experienced anything fresh, new, or


Enough bad news. Where do great ideas come from?

1. From New Hires Fresh, green recruits to your team, your division, your company, are

about as far from the top as you can get. (Think of the Tim Robbins character in The

Hudsucker Proxy, showing up in the mail room with a great idea in his shoe.) The new hires

in any organization are the first resource for generating great new ideas. Why? Because they

have fresh eyes. They bring a clean slate to your world. The truth is, all of us have a

tendency to become inured to the daily operations of the workplace. Small inconsistencies or

inadequacies gradually become acceptable; opportunities for improvement or innovation go

by the boards because we simply don’t see them anymore. But new hires see them. They

ask the simple but necessary questions: Why do we do it like that? Couldn’t we do it better?

Suggestion: Do what entrepreneurial hotelier Chip Conley does at his Joie de Vivre

properties. Make it a habit to sit down with your new hires at about the three-month point. But

don’t give them a performance review – ask them to give your operation a performance

review. After three months, their eyes are still fresh enough that they’ll be able to see things you’re missing. And they’ll have been on the job long enough to know how things really work.

Chances are good that they’ll have a few great ideas to contribute.

2. From People on the Periphery It used to be the case in most organizations that if you got

transferred to a part of the company out in the boondocks your career was in trouble. These

days, chances are good you’ll finally have a chance to participate in some meaningful

innovation. The reason is simple: In many companies, headquarters is the bastion of the

status quo; the closer you get to the throne, the less of a chance you have to try new things.

But out on the periphery, experimentation can take place. This is where new ideas are born,

tested, tried, refined. If they work, they can always be repatriated to headquarters. If they fail,

they can be given a quiet, dignified burial, and no one ever hears about those ideas again.

The landscape of great ideas is littered with winners that started out on the periphery and

gradually made it back to headquarters: The Boston Consulting Group’s wildly successful

time-based competition strategy came from smart observers in Japan, but really took off

when it came back to the United States. Levi’s Dockers began in South America, then

became all the rage in the middle-aged, slightly paunchy men’s market in the United States.

If you’re looking for good ideas – or you want a better shot at generating some yourself –

move to the periphery. It’s where the action is.

3. From Front-Line Workers The best ideas often come from the people with the dirtiest

fingernails. They’re the tech reps at Xerox who actually repair the machines, and can offer

the engineers and product development people a bundle of ways to make their products

better and more reliable, if anybody cared to listen. They’re the call service reps who actually

talk – and even more important, listen – to customers. Almost every company will tell you

that the voice of the customer needs to be heeded – and the call service folks are the ones

who have it ringing in their ears all day long. They’re the factory workers working on the

assembly line.

Toyota used to save millions of dollars a year just by giving each assembly line worker a

pencil and asking her to write down ideas for improving the product or the process. If you

want to hear great ideas, go spend some time with the people on the front lines of customer

contact. Or, even better, go work with them for a day. You’ll hear some very useful ideas in a

very concentrated amount of time.

4. From Customers Back in the heyday of the Sony Walkman, it became fashionable for

strategists and marketers to disparage the value of customer input. “If we waited for

customers to tell us what they want, we’d never come up with the things they don’t know they

want until we make them,” ran the refrain. There’s enough truth to this for it to sound

convincing. The problem is, it’s only half true. Customers do know what they want, they do

know what they like, and if you show them new things, they’ll very quickly tell you what they

think. This is how Starbucks continually tests and rolls out new drinks for their coffee shops:

They test them in stores that function as real-life R&D labs, and, if they work, roll them out

into their “plows” – the stores that generate the real income. It’s how Harrah’s has

transformed its gambling and entertainment business; Harrah’s is the only gambling

company that thinks it’s in the retail business, checking regularly with shoppers to see if the

offerings are to their liking. If you want to gather up great ideas – and do it at low cost – try

creating listening posts where your customers can talk with you. They’ll appreciate the

opportunity, and you’ll learn a lot.

5. From Great Companies in Other Industries The hard truth is, there aren’t any new

ideas. There are only new applications and smart twists on old ones. So if you want to be in

the great-idea business, one way to increase your flow of ideas is to steal them. If you’re in

manufacturing, try visiting the best hotels in the world. Study how they “manufacture” a clean,

fresh room every day. If you’re in retail, check out the best-run airlines in the world. See what

it takes to sell the same seat over and over again. The history of innovation is chock-full of

“geniuses” who begged, borrowed, and stole ideas from one category and simply applied

them to another.

Here are a few time-tested techniques for coming up with great ideas:

1. Focus on Quantity, Not Quality Most of us think that we need to wait for that one big,

killer idea to strike. In the process, we ignore or screen out a myriad of smaller, interesting,

useful, clever ideas. But the truth is, they’re all worth considering. You never know when a

small idea will morph into a big one. So love them all.

2. Collect Them All Once you get into the idea-generating business, you’ll want to collect all

the ideas you can get your hands on. When you think of an idea, write it down. When you

see something that looks interesting, write it down. Some people carry notebooks with them.

Others rely on 3×5 cards that they carry in their shirt pockets. Every once in a while, empty

your notebook or your pockets into a computer file, where you can pick through what you’ve

collected, review it, and see what really stands out.

3. Get Outside Your Comfort Zone If you want to find new ideas, the best thing to do is to

go looking for them. Do you get ideas from magazines? Go to the nearest magazine rack,

but this time buy five magazines you’d never ordinarily read. If you’re an environmentalist, try

reading Guns & Ammo. If you’re a politics junkie, try reading Scientific American. Or, if you

get your ideas from books, step outside your favorite genre. If you’re a history buff, it’s time

for a romance novel. If you love fiction, pick up a how-to book. Work on developing your

peripheral vision. You’ll be amazed at what you notice once you’re in unfamiliar territory.

4. Travel They say that travel is broadening, but that’s just the half of it. It’s also deepening.

The enemy of new ideas is the familiar. So go someplace new. If you can’t actually go to an

exotic country, buy the guidebook as if you were going to make the trip and read it. At a

minimum, try eating at an exotic restaurant. Open up the borders of your mind.

5. Reach Out and Touch Someone Make a list of people you know whose minds you

genuinely respect. (Over time, you’ll develop more names, including people you don’t know

yet but whom you’d like to meet.) Make it a point to call them on a regular basis for a

conversation. All you have to ask is, “What’s new?” Then listen and take notes. Journalists

do it all the time; it’s called developing sources. It’s where ideas for articles come from. Try it

in your business. It works.

6. Be Taught Sign up for a class at a continuing-education program or a community college.

Generating great ideas is part of learning, so practice learning. Just take a class. It could be

in anything, from gardening to a new foreign language, from cooking to photography. You’ll

be in learning mode, which means your mind will be open. Once you start noticing new

things in class, you’ll probably notice them at work as well.

Taken from THE BIG MOO – Edited by Seth Godin