New ideas are certainly the currency of the new economy, and they are also the fuel for most innovations. Despite that importance, though, many people still associate the generation of ideas with a lone genius, sitting on his desk and coming up with new things from scratch.
The reality is less romantic, successful companies will need to learn how to catalyze ideas on a systematic basis, probably using very structured methods. Andrew Hargadon and Robert Sutton have a very interesting essay on the Harvard Business Review (print edition) titled “Building an Innovation Factory” where they describe the process of knowledge brokering.
According to the authors the knowledge brokering cycle that fosters ideas and innovation within companies is composed of four main phases: capturing ideas, keeping ideas alive, imagining new uses for old ideas and putting promising concepts to the test. Below I will describe each one of the four phases:
Capturing ideas: companies should tap as many resources as possible to generate new ideas. People should also be able to play with things, both with their minds and with their hands. The HBS article brings the example of IDEO, a consulting company located in Palo Alto, which has many “Tech Boxes” scattered around their offices. Those “Tech Boxes” are nothing more than rooms packed with different materials and devices to stimulate new ideas.
Keeping ideas alive: psychology has clarified that the most difficult thing about solving problems is to able to use the right information on the right time, even if such information had already been learned people can not simply load it as a computer hard drive. Now if a single person already faces such a challenge imagine what happens when we consider huge organizations where you have many specialists, different geographical locations and people going and coming constantly. Companies should enable workers to play with ideas and incentive them to share knowledge so that ideas will not be forgotten.
Imagining new uses for old ideas: once a company is able to capture and keep ideas alive it will need to be able to apply those ideas to different contexts. There is a good quote from Thomas Edison where he defends that before starting a new project one should “study the present construction (…), ask for all past experiences, study and read everything on the subject.” Being innovative does not mean that you will need to reinvent the wheel every other day, often times more important than having answers is asking the right questions.
Putting promising concepts to the test: I have always defended that ideas are necessary but not sufficient. They certainly are the building blocks for innovation, but equally important is the execution. As the authors describe it: “a good idea for a new product or business practice isn’t worth much by itself. It needs to be turned into something that can be test and, if successful, integrated into the rest of a company does, makes or sells.”