Three Rules for Generating the Best Ideas

May 15, 2013

I was looking for more information on how well ideation processes work this week, and I came across a great study by Karan Girotra, Christian Terwiesch, and Karl T. Ulrich at University of Pennsylvania was called “Idea Generation and the Quality of the Best Idea”. They ran a clever experiment to study idea generating processes within organizations with the results focused on a few, high-quality ideas rather the overall number or average quality. As the authors succinctly state, “an organization would prefer 99 bad ideas and 1 outstanding idea to 100 merely good ideas. In the world of innovation, the extremes are what matter, not the average.” Companies can only launch a limited number of products, so we focus on the very best concepts.

The results were provocative. They found overwhelming support for an idea generation approach where individuals first worked alone and then came to together to explain and rank the ideas from the entire group. More ideas, better ideas on average, and the remarkably best ideas were all generated by this approach.

But, that’s not the interesting part.

My experience has always been that one or two people in the organization generate the best ideas. In the context of this experiment, it seems that top innovators could simply work alone and effectively focus on producing their high-quality ideas. Just when I begin to think the authors would ignore the individual differences, they concluded with the following….

"In all our results, we found that differences in performance across individuals are large and highly significant. These large performance differences suggest an interesting opportunity for future research. It would be interesting to examine whether these differences are persistent. If they are, an optimal process may be to first screen the pool of individuals for the highest performers and then employ only those individuals in subsequent idea generation efforts." 

Right! It has been my experience that innovators with the right combination of knowledge and creativity generate the best new ideas. General efforts that strive to expand the pool of innovators and engage large numbers of people in the innovation process are extremely inefficient. Organizations should first identify the most effective participants and maximize the tools and resources available to this team. Here are three ways to help ensure you create the best ideas:

1) Carefully select the most effective innovators based on prior success and relevant expertise to the problem at hand. Utilize available organizational tools to identify relevant work experience, prior product ideas, patenting rates, publications, and involvement in new collaborations to pick a strong team.

2) Establish and communicate relevant constraints for the end result. Is this a new product that has to launch in the next year?

3) Participants should come to meeting with a collection of ideas developed on their own. Preparation and individual effort prior to group discussion is critical.

Let me know if you have seen any papers that follow up on the individual differences that are mentioned in this paper!



Let's Talk