Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 11, Issue 32;   August 10, 2011: New Ideas: Generation

New Ideas: Generation

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When groups work together to solve problems, they employ three processes repeatedly: they generate ideas, they judge those ideas, and they experiment with those ideas. We first examine idea generation.
XP-80 prototype Lulu-Belle on the ground

XP-80 prototype Lulu-Belle on the ground, in a photo probably taken in 1944. Although this aircraft wasn't the first US jet-powered aircraft, its operational version, the P-80 later designated the F-80, was the first operational jet aircraft to have its engine integrated into the fuselage. It arrived too late for combat in World War II but it did see service in Korea.

The XP-80 was developed as the first project of the Lockheed Skunk Works, which was a facility established by Lockheed to enable development of advanced aircraft. The concept of a skunk works, now widely used in business, is that by giving innovators autonomy, and protection from bureaucracy, we can accelerate development and facilitate innovation. A skunk works is the organizational analog of what idea generators need when groups solve problems. Photo courtesy United States Air Force.

To solve problems, groups need good ideas. Since complex problems usually require many good ideas, we generate them any way we can — brainstorming, conversations over lunch, or even dreaming. The ideas we generate include the good, the bad, and the ugly, and it isn't always obvious which is which. We have to comb through them all, evaluating, assessing, doing thought experiments, and making judgments. When we think we've found something worthwhile, we might do some actual experiments to help with the judging.

Generate, judge, experiment. Generate, judge, experiment. It isn't a simple cycle, of course, because sometimes we generate new ideas in the course of judging, or while running experiments. Nevertheless, it's useful to consider three roles for group members: generators, judges, and experimenters. Some people hop easily from role to role, and some adopt two roles — or all three — simultaneously.

Although ideas have a life cycle, we don't always respect that life cycle, and that's where trouble can begin. Over the next three issues, I offer some insights that help us to accommodate our generating, judging, and experimenting efforts to the life cycle of ideas. Let's begin with generating.

Newborn ideas are fragile
Newborn ideas — ideas just hatched and new to the group — are easily crushed. They usually have weaknesses that haven't yet been addressed. They're incomplete and vulnerable.
Their vulnerability arises from at least three sources. First, if the problem space is complex, the generator of the idea might have grasped only a part of the problem. Second, generators tend to focus on singular aspects of the problem, even if they have grasped the entire problem. Third, to aid generation, generators often intentionally produce wacky or mostly-wacky ideas, because they can trigger creative thinking.
To prevent premature rejection of newborn ideas, suspend judging until generation has completed an iteration. This suspension is an important part of formal brainstorming.
Addressing weaknesses requires resources
Newborn ideas are Newborn ideas are incomplete,
in part, because of the
narrowness of
their constituencies
incomplete, in part, because of the narrowness of their constituencies. Because it's new, a newborn idea hasn't yet acquired advocates beyond the small circle of its generators. This is rarely enough to protect a newborn idea from rejection, as its list of weaknesses accumulates.
When we apply our judging and evaluation processes to newborn ideas, they sometimes die because their constituencies are so narrow that they suffer from insufficient exposure to cognitive diversity. For example, their generators might not have considered a weakness identified by a judge, or even if they have, they might not have developed a resolution.
To prevent premature rejection of newborn ideas during judging, consider designating teams of advocates to address the weaknesses judges identify. The advocates might need more members than the judging team, because addressing weaknesses can be more difficult than identifying them.

Next time, we'll examine the judging process. Meanwhile, I hope you can suspend judgment on these insights about newborn ideas. Next in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: New Ideas: Judging  Next Issue

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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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Hard problems need not be big problems. Even when they're small, they can halt progress on any project. Here's Part I of an approach to working on hard problems by breaking them down into smaller steps. Available here and by RSS on June 28.
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In this Part II of our look at solving hard problems, we continue developing properties of the solution, and look at how we get from the beginning to the end. Available here and by RSS on July 5.

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