The Ebb and Flow of Ideation

The Ebb and Flow of Ideation

We live in uncertain times, and good ideas are needed more than ever.

Let’s face it. We need good ideas now more than ever. In times of uncertainty, it can be extremely helpful to get back to basics – to figure out how we can generate new opportunities for growth, and new ways to provide value to our customers. To add to that, we need to make sure that our ideation work is more effective. We simply can’t afford to spend the time on brainstorming sessions that don’t produce results. With that in mind, I thought it might be useful to go back to the basics.

By now, most of us know the rules for conducting a decent brainstorming session: defer judgment, build on what others come up with, and so forth. But it’s also useful to understand the general ebb and flow that most sessions go through. Often, the problem with a poor brainstorm is that the group just isn’t getting stupid enough. The desire to get to great ideas prevents us from suggesting the absurd. It’s those absurd ideas, though, that can help us ricochet back to get the really great ideas we’re looking for.

Over time, my colleagues and I have noticed a general pattern in the quality of ideas that emerge in an ideation session. We’ve mapped out this pattern into something we call the Idea Curve (see figure). Our observations bear out the conventional wisdom that quantity yields quality – the more ideas that you have, the more likely it is that some of those ideas are going to be great. As expected, the first ideas that people think of tend to be the obvious ones, ideas that most of us have already thought of. The first few minutes of an ideation session are really about clearing out the pipeline – unloading all of the obvious solutions so that you can get to the good stuff. With a little luck, you can get some momentum going, and ideas start to flow.

At some point though, the well seems to run dry, and the quality of ideas hits a plateau. Folks start to look at the walls and check their watches. At that point, some smart guy will declare that we’ve probably exhausted this vector, and suggest that we take a break. That’s actually the last thing you should do. Experienced ideators will start throwing out all sorts of random thoughts. And you know what? Most of those ideas are pretty dumb. “I know that we’re supposed to defer judgment,” some people start to think, “but wow, those are some real stinkers.” And that’s a good thing. Hopefully, the ideas get stupid enough that we start to laugh, or take the conversation in unexpected directions. And then, like magic, some brilliant ideas start to appear. And things get rolling again.

I was in one such brainstorming session the other day. We were brainstorming some new ideas for a packaged goods company. Because we were diligent about numbering the ideas, we could suddenly see the pattern writ large on the wall. We threw out over fifty ideas in rapid succession, most of which had been thought of before. And then things started to slow down. Unwilling to throw in the towel, we started to toss out all sorts of random ideas.

One of the participants hailed from New Zealand, and so we took that as a point of departure. Ideas number seventy to seventy-seven were ideas for how we could cater to Aussies and Kiwis – basically a bunch of harebrained thoughts that reflected the worst stereotypes of what we thought people were like down under. And then things started to move again.

Idea number eighty-two springboarded off of a product for kangaroos, but was actually quite a good idea. By the time we got to a hundred, we had ten more concepts that were worth further exploration. Out of a hundred ideas, the first sixty ideas produced five that were actually new or different, the next twenty produced nothing but laughter, and ideas eighty to a hundred produced another ten that were amazing. Thankfully, we didn’t give up when the well ran dry around idea number sixty.

Our experience reminded us that better ideas show up over time. But more importantly, in order to to get the next plateau of quality, you have to be willing to go through patches when all of the stuff you’re coming up with is absolutely silly, impractical or irrelevant. To quote Steve Miller, you have to go through hell before you get to heaven. We’ve started to post the idea curve up on the wall in meeting rooms – just to remind ourselves of the value of those absurd ideas.

And who knows? Maybe Kangaroos do need better ways to do the laundry…

Dev Patnaik


Dev Patnaik is the CEO of Jump Associates, the leading independent strategy and innovation firm. He’s a board member of Conscious Capitalism. Dev has been a trusted advisor to CEOs at some of the world’s most admired companies, including Starbucks, Target, Nike, Universal and Virgin.