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We need solutions not ideas

Most people believe that producing lots of ideas is good – and evaluate them by thinking about their positive aspects. However, given that so many ideas are produced, a more useful contribution might be to assess what makes an idea bad.

Chris Thompson, a former management accountant, who runs innovation consultancy Viadynamics, urges companies to use a systemic approach that assesses an idea’s potential weaknesses and strengths. This involves looking at it from the point of view of a range of people, including the retailer and manufacturer, as well as the consumer, who traditionally attracts the attention. This is done through asking questions, such as whether the idea works as a product or service, whether it be manufactured, whether money can be made from it and whether it is legal.

While this will have some effect, Thompson argues the real benefit comes from challenging the accepted wisdom that innovation begins with idea creation. “People believe in the immaculate conception of ideas,” he says. “They think they are the product of one mind and arrive fully formed.”

He claims, the most useful ideas are solutions – and, accordingly, the creative process should start with the “what” rather than the idea. This creates criteria against which ideas can be judged.

His thinking about risk is similar. People commonly see risk as something they are frightened of dealing with, but he says companies must work with it. This is because risk is dynamic and reflects a business’s understanding of a project.

Nor is this the end of the self-assessment. For, once a business starts to assess risks and put an idea into action, it must decide what sort of product or service it is going to be manifest as.

Thompson’s view – perhaps conditioned by experience of working for toy company Hasbro – is that they fall into two broad categories: toys and games. “Toys” are quickly picked up and put down. “Yo-yos just disappeared,” he says, by way of example. “Games” covers products or services that take longer to catch on, but that tend to go deeper and become part of the culture, like Monopoly.

The distinction is important because these different kinds of product require different management approaches. Toys might require outsourcing and licensing in order to make the most of demand that might be short-lived, whereas with games the approach can be more controlled.

However, Thompson says neither kind of product is ideal. What is needed is a hybrid that is easy to pick up – and hard to put down.

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