The Idea Funnel: start creative, end focused

Principle 4 of my Top 10 Management Principles

There are three concepts that need to be considered when defining a process that involves taking ideas and creating outcomes.  First is understanding creativity, second is understanding personality, and third is how to put together a process that considers the needs of creativity and the needs of business.

To understand creativity, let’s look at three concepts:  creativityintelligence and knowledge.  Knowledge is simply understanding facts and is accumulated in one’s mind in the learning process as one learns new bits of knowledge over time.  Creativity is the ability to combine bits of knowledge in new configurations.  Intelligence is the ability to recognize which configurations of knowledge are useful.  Understanding and combining these concepts will help us to develop a business process to “manage” creativity and produce products.  Let’s look at an example of creativity.

Let’s say Mary invents a three-legged stool and it is very useful, however John finds the stool somewhat uncomfortable.  John decides that lying down is more comfortable, but less useful for work and he tries to come up with a way to combine the ideas of the stool and a bed.  He takes his mattress, leans it against the wall and puts the stool next to it.  Now he can sit in the stool and lean on the bed.  John now has a very comfortable place to read books.  Mary, impressed by John’s idea, goes one step further and adds a back to the stool and calls it a chair.  In this example, the chair was invented by combining two previously-known bits of knowledge.

Now that we understand the creative process, how do we optimize it?  This is where intelligence becomes important, because intelligence is the catalyst for optimizing creativity.  It does so in two ways:  it is the skill required to recognize the relative usefulness of creative ideas, and it speeds up the creative process by leading to more useful solutions quicker.  In the previous example, we have two solutions for making the stool comfortable, but which one is better and how do we know which one is better?  Let’s just say that it’s obvious that Mary’s chair is better than John’s chair, so her chair is the more intelligent solution to making the stool more comfortable.  We might even go as far as to say the Mary is more intelligent than John because she recognized the better solution.

So what is creative genius?  Some would define it as an ability to come up with many widly new ideas without regard to usefulness.  This definition really only addresses the creative side of creative genius.  The genius side involves focusing the creative process to produce “good” ideas.  We can leave the definition of “good” for some other conversation. 

The second part to figuring out how to exploit the creative process is understanding people.  The Myers-Briggs Type Indicatoris one of many personality profile assessments that have been developed to understand how people behave.  These profiles allow us to understand how different people can work together and contribute to a goal.  The key here is that some people are more creative and others are more intelligent.  For now, let’s assume that stereotypes are true:  creative people tend to be unfocused and intelligent people tend to be drivers.  We need to value both types and develop a process that helps them interact in an optimal way.  Such a process must allow phases for each type to contribute in way that maximizes their input.  This process is the idea funnel, which is very similar to the sales funnel.

An idea funnel works like so:  start by generating creative ideas which are new combinations of bits of knowledge, then proceed with selection and elaboration, and finally focus on refining the best ideas and producing an outcome. This process describes how a team of people with various skills and aptitudes can work together to produce exceptional outcomes. 

The first step is essentially brainstorming, which is fairly understood today and occurs at the start of the process.  The input is a general description of the desired outcome.  As we know, brainstorming involves generating many new ideas without regard to usefulness and without much discussion.  The output is a wealth of possibilities that need to be considered and filtered.

The second step can involve any number of techniques that help us model and document ideas and concepts. During selection and elaboration, the goal is to understand each idea to the extent necessary to exclude it from proceeding to the refining step.

After selection is complete, the team has a very good understanding of the nature of the desired outcome.  The team is then ready to refine the selected ideas and reduce them into a practical outcome (product, process, presentation, etc.).  The refining step is where the less creative people will likely be able to drive the outcome with more methodical and rigorous methods.

The idea funnel considers how creativity works, how people work and creates an environment where a group of people can exhibit creative genius.  One of the keys is to separate creativity from refinement, producing two effects:  the creative people on the team will feel that they have an important contribution in the beginning of the process, and few relevant ideas will escape the team.  The other key is to drive the process to a decisive conclusion by selection and refinement where the team can focus on a target date to deliver the required outcome.

Explore posts in the same categories: Thoughts on Management

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