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Getting Ideas is the Easy Part: Here's What You Need for Innovation
by Wally Bock

Ideas, including good ones, come naturally to human beings. As Robert Tucker said: "Anyone who has ever taken a shower has had a good idea." But good ideas are only the starting point for innovation.

No less an authority than Joseph Schumpeter put it this way: "to carry any improvement into effect is a task entirely different from the inventing of it, and a task, moreover, requiring entirely different kinds of aptitudes." In other words, it takes work to turn good ideas into something helpful and profitable.

Get Ideas from Everywhere

Human beings naturally have good ideas. They'll share them with you if you let them. But if you shoot down or ridicule every new idea you hear, people will stop sharing ideas with you.

Companies that produce lots of innovation start with ideas. They encourage idea sharing. As Jack Welch recommends, they get every brain in the game.

They also know that most great ideas don't sound so great at first. Great ideas become great as people work at molding them and shaping them and stretching them into useful form.

To get as many ideas as possible, create a climate where people can share ideas. They won't all be great ones. But some will and that's all you need. The other advantage of getting ideas from everyone is that you'll benefit from ideas you didn't have to develop yourself.

Learning from Others

Not only do other people get lots and lots of ideas. Some of them take the time to work out the details that you wouldn't spend time on. My experience with yogurt is an example.

I love yogurt and my favorite is fruit-on-the-bottom. For years I figured I had two options. I could eat through the yogurt down to the fruit. Or I could stand there in the kitchen and mix the fruit and yogurt together by stirring with my spoon.

Then, one day, I was at a friend's house and I watched his daughter take a container of yogurt out of the refrigerator and shake it vigorously. "What are you doing?" I asked her.

The girl gave me a look that only a teenager can give to a slightly-subnormal adult. "Mixing up my yogurt." She was polite enough not to add the word, "stupid."

What a neat trick! Now I shake my yogurt to mix it. Why didn't I think of that? I probably could have analyzed the problem and come up with the shaking solution, but what I did was working OK, so I didn't look for anything better.

Look around for innovations that others have created. Ideas that are almost sure to work are the best practices of other companies in your industry. But the breakthrough ideas often come from outside, from an industry that routinely solves a problem that's new to you. But, sometimes, innovations grow out of accidents or things that some curious soul happens to notice.

Hmmm, that's Interesting

Interesting things happen all the time. And they can become the source of innovation. But someone has to notice and take the next step.

At the National Institutes of Health, just like in laboratories around the world, researchers used frogs for experiments and often that involves surgery on the frogs. Researchers put the frogs away for the night in water that was filled with organisms that should have made the frogs sick.

But the frogs didn't get sick. Thousands of researchers for dozens of years thought nothing about that.

Then, in 1987, Dr. Michael Zasloff noticed and wondered why the frogs, with open wounds and in a septic environment weren't getting sick. I don't know what he said then, but I bet it was some variant of "Hmmm, that's interesting." That curiosity led Dr. Zasloff to the discovery of a new class of antibiotics, which he, being Jewish, named with the Hebrew word "Magainins."

The fact is that while everybody gets good ideas, not everyone is good at spotting a fortuitous coincidence and then doing the work necessary to turn it into something worthwhile. Japanese researchers Teruyasu Murakami and Takashi Nishiwaki found that only 5 percent of the people in most organizations are "idea creators." They suggest that a further 10 percent are idea supporters and promoters, but that 85 percent are "idea killers."

It's easy to spot the idea creators in your shop. They're the people who always want to find out why something works the way it does or try out an idea about improving a process. Put them together with supervisors who are idea supporters and promoters and they'll be an unending source of innovation. But they probably won't get it right the first time.

Inventors Don't Know Everything

You would think that the person who came up with a product idea or invention would be the best person to predict the uses for it. You'd be wrong. Thomas Edison is a good example.

When Thomas Edison introduced his phonograph in 1877 he could think of several uses for it. Why, you could record the last words of people who were about to die. You could teach spelling. You could make a talking clock. You could have a dictating machine for your office.

What wasn't important to Edison was using the phonograph to play music. Maybe it was because he had hearing problems, but Edison thought that the reproduction of music was a frivolous use of his wonderful invention and cheapened its image.

Other people didn't think the same way. They liked the idea of using the phonograph to play music. When they wanted to create an early jukebox that would play music at the drop of a coin, Edison objected. It took him almost twenty years to accept the fact that playing music was the use that mattered most to people, that mattered most to the market.

Don't fall in love with your technology. Don't think people will love what you love. Remember Edison and the phonograph. Remember Sony.

Sony was sure that their Beta format videocassette recorder would conquer the market and the world. It didn't, in part because the higher quality video that Beta offered was less important to customers and video rental stores than longer running time per cassette. In the end, the customer knows.

Get the Customers Involved.

Customers may not be able to tell you what spiffy new products and services they will like, but that's OK. They can tell you what their problems are. They can react knowledgably and helpfully to an idea you've got for a product or service. And they'll find ways to use your product that you never thought of.

This afternoon I was in the supermarket. A man near me was using his camera phone to beam a picture of a can back to his wife at home. After he sent the picture, he put the handset to his ear, "Is that the right one?" he asked. He listened, then picked the can off the shelf and put it in his basket.

The people who invented the camera feature for cell phones never imagined all the uses people put them to. My contractor uses his to check on a job across town without driving to see if an installation is done correctly. People take surreptitious photos in locker rooms. They take pictures of auto accidents to use later in court. And, my favorite, my daughter sends me a picture of my grandson, at his birthday party two time zones away, while the party is in progress.

Customers know best what works for them. That makes one of the best innovation strategies the simple one of getting the customers involved early.

Give it a Try, and Quick!

The company with perhaps the most amazing record of innovation over the last century is the 3M Company. William McKnight was hired as an assistant bookkeeper at 3M in 1907 for the princely sum of $11.55 per week. He rose to become president in 1929 and was chairman of the board from 1949 to 1966. In that time he created the innovation culture that made 3M famous.

As I was working on a way to close this piece, I discovered a collection of his sayings that seemed better than anything I could say. Here they are.

"Listen to anyone with an original idea, no matter how absurd it might seem at first."

"Encourage, don't nitpick. Let people run with an idea."

"If you put fences around people you get sheep. Give people the room they need."

"Give it a try, and quick!"

Wally Bock helps organizations improve productivity and morale, as well as deal with the challenges of massive Boomer retirements. Wally coaches individual managers, and is a popular speaker at meetings and conferences in the US and elsewhere. You can find out more about Wally and his work at his Three Star Leadership web site ( This article first appeared in the Three Star Leadership Blog (

Wally Bock may be contacted at or


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