The Cult of Ideas is a dangerous body lurking within the field of corporate innovation. It is a disturbing grouping in which members worship massive numbers of ideas above all else. On the surface, this seems a good thing. After all, innovations are founded on ideas, are they not? So, if a company wants to innovate, the more ideas it creates the better. Sadly, however, the truth is that the cult of ideas can actually stifle creativity and inhibit innovation.
The cult manifests itself when Starbucks proclaims that they have received over 100,000 ideas from their on-line suggestion web site or when IBM boasts of Idea Jams that generate many tens of thousands of ideas. It is easy to understand why the Cult has grown so powerful. Most senior managers come from analytical backgrounds, often with MBAs from prestigious academic institutions.
Unfortunately, finding meaningful numbers in the innovation process can be tricky. Technology and pharmaceutical companies can count their patents – and many do. But patents fail to measure efficiency and business model innovation, which are also important. Moreover, many innovative firms take out few patents. The number of new products launched every year, or the income generated by products introduced in the past five years is another approach for measuring product innovation – but it also fails to recognise other forms of innovation. A visit to any supermarket suggests we must question whether the introduction of new products truly represents innovation. A look at all the variations of washing up liquid or soap powder, many of which claim to be “new”, for instance, is hardly indicative of product innovation.
So managers have latched on to the counting of ideas and the assumption that lots and lots of ideas must be a good thing. This has been enhanced by innovation service providers who also espouse the notion that more ideas are better than fewer. And from this situation has grown the Cult of Ideas which is further fuelled by the efforts of Innovation consultants and vendors of Idea Management solutions.
So why is this cult bad? Ideas on their own are good but it is the pursuit of ever increasing numbers that is not so good. We tend to forget what we are supposed to do next! If we do not actually implement ideas but simply sit around and make plans then our innovation programs are guaranteed to fail. Ideas must be put into practice and economic value created. Companies such as Google and Apple rarely brag about how many ideas they generate. They demonstrate innovation. Take a look at Fast Company’s list of most innovative companies. Those at the top of the pile are recognised for their innovations and not for quantities of ideas.