The Only Business Metric That Matters
by Jeremy Utley and Perry Klebahn
After finishing this book in March of 2023, I wrote,
"Ideaflow is a comprehensive and imminently practical set of tools to create those groundbreaking ideas that can change lives and companies. My notes don't do this book justice. You'll have to read it."
My clippings below collapse a 304-page book into 6 pages, measured by using 12-point type in Microsoft Word.
Here are the selections I made:
THE IDEA QUOTA Loosening up your stiff creative muscles every morning helps you make the crucial flip from a mindset of quality to one of quantity when it’s time to come up with ideas. Making the following Idea Quota a part of your day will lighten the subconscious pressure for perfection that stymies creative exploration.
Every morning from now on, you will write down ten ideas. (We’ll get to what kind of ideas in a moment.) The quality of these ideas isn’t the point. Contrary to what you might believe, you can’t judge the merit of an idea while it’s still inside your head. Idea validation is as crucial to the creative process as idea generation. But that happens later. For now, our aim is just to freshen up stale thinking.
Performing an Idea Quota is a simple, three-S process: Seed. Select a problem and study it. Sleep. Let the unconscious mind process the probl...
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From now on, you will feed your brain high-importance problems, pointing it toward areas where new thinking will contribute meaningfully to your goals.
If you have more than one pressing idea problem, create a Problem Queue. (You can never have too many good problems to work on.) As you unwind for sleep, select a problem from your Problem Queue and let your mind play with it in a relaxed and unfocused way. You might even spend a few minutes doing some related reading. Don’t force solutions, though. What you’re doing here is luring the interest of your subconscious. Ponder the relevant details, but don’t try to make everything fit together yet.
performance and routine brain maintenance. While the
In the shower, while making breakfast, on your morning run—during any lightly distracting physical activity, noodle on the problem in a relaxed manner. Then, before leaving for work, spend a few minutes jotting down possible solutions. Aim for a minimum of ten but count all iterations and variations. If you’re coming up with colors for a new logo, for instance, aquamarine and cornflower blue both count.
THE DISCIPLINE OF DOCUMENTATION At the d.school, we have a saying: “If you don’t capture it, it didn’t happen.” Memory isn’t as reliable as you might think. People chronically underestimate how much they’ll remember about something after even a few minutes have passed. This is even more true of our own ideas than simple facts like where we parked the car, or what our spouse wants from the take-out place.
An old saying goes, “The faintest ink is better than the sharpest memory.” But that’s not true if you never go back to read what you wrote.
To arrive at a single successful product, 2,000 ideas become 100 working prototypes. Those 100 prototypes become 5 commercial products. Of the final 5, 1 will succeed. To truly grasp the implications of 2,000:100:5:1, however, forget the fact that we’re talking about toys, or even products in general. What we’ve found working with innovators of every kind is that the scale of this approach applies universally.
It’s worth repeating: for quantity to soar, relax expectations around quality. As you’re learning from your Idea Quota, generating lots of ideas requires a no-judgment zone.
If the right starting number isn’t six but the far side of six hundred, how do we bridge the gap between what people think they need and the scale of output that drives world-class results? It would help to use all the time available, for one thing. In our work at Stanford, we’ve found that even professional creatives tend to stop generating ideas before the allotted time. In most cases, people anchor on the first good idea the moment it’s been suggested and, once that happens, the energy in the room changes. The group spends the rest of the time effectively reassuring itself that the idea they’ve latched on to is a good one. I really think we’ve got ourselves a winner here, folks!
If people aren’t aware of the correlation between quantity and quality, persisting past the first good idea can be interpreted as perfectionism. Wasteful. People get annoyed when one contributor keeps throwing out new ideas when the majority is forming a consensus.
Warm-ups also shift the group out of the conventional, convergent mindset they rely on at work. When we’re doing our jobs, we’re primed to notice mistakes, minimize risk, organize chaos, and stay on point. Generating ideas together requires a different mode of operation.
This means allowing yourself, just for this window of time, to think “irresponsibly.” When you adopt a divergent mindset, there are no longer mistakes. Only, in the words of the great creativity expert and landscape painter Bob Ross, “happy little accidents.”
We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress. —RICHARD FEYNMAN
Test before you invest, not once but at every stage. Testing is forecasting. It’s how you see your success before you achieve it.
As Charles Eames once said, “The first question of design is not how it should look, but if it should even be.”
Never put what you can do (feasibility) ahead of what the market wants (desirability).
“Most of the time, the problem is the problem.” If you’re not willing to reframe the problem to explore a more productive avenue, you’ll end up spinning your tires.
Don’t let perfectionism get in the way of rapid learning. Releasing a low-fidelity version of an idea into the world can be especially painful for a company with a commitment to quality.
Learning circles Unlike tactics tied to a specific role, project, or enterprise, establishing a Learning Circle—a group that connects regularly to share and discuss ideas—will provide a lifetime of divergent inputs for you.
Considering eighteenth-century social mores, Franklin assembled an incredibly divergent mix for the time: rich and poor, young and old, clerk and merchant alike. These were all white men, of course, but for his time, Franklin was breaking down barriers. Every Friday evening, the Junto would congregate to share the essays its members had written on subjects of personal interest. A debate on ethics or natural philosophy, aka scientific inquiry, might follow. To ensure civility, the group levied small fines for direct criticism or personal attacks. Many of these men had no higher education, but they were curious, intellectually intrepid, and, of course, avid readers. Franklin made sure of that in selecting them.
Pen pals Charles Darwin made good use of the postal service in his scientific work, corresponding regularly with hundreds of collaborators across more than a dozen fields of inquiry.
It is a familiar and significant saying that a problem well put is half-solved. —JOHN DEWEY
When the answers run dry, ask a better question.
Leveraging the brain’s extraordinary capacity to pan for gold comes down to asking it questions that attract its interest and activate its attention.
Expectations. What are you taking for granted about the problem? For this dial, it can be helpful to make a list of all the assumptions you’re making about how the product should work or how the solution should otherwise function. Then swap each assumption with its opposite. How might we share ice cream without a cone or a cup? How might we make ice cream hot? How might we make ice cream the appetizer rather than the dessert? How might we eliminate the post-ice-cream sugar crash?
Similarity. Analogy is one of the most powerful creative tools. We’ll dig deeper into the power of analogy in the next chapter. Here, consider parallel contexts at one end of the dial and completely unrelated ones at the other. To think of good analogies to try, start with the intended outcome. Want to make ice cream faster? “Who or what is built for speed?” Want to delight your customers? “Who or what delights people?” The brain solves new problems in this way, using its understanding of a familiar topic to grapple with one that appears very different on the surface. You might apply the lessons of high school football to your first job managing a team, or transplant one of Napoleon’s battlefield strategies to a product launch. Consciously or unconsciously, we distill principles from observations and then see where else they might fit. How might we make ice cream like a therapy session? How might an Olympic sprinter serve up an ice cream cone? How might Apple design a container for ice cream sprinkles? How might eating ice cream feel like a roller coaster? Like a magic show? Like a horror movie? HMW questions can be silly or serious.
A Wonder Wander is the simple but life-changing practice of using your legs to feed your brain by taking a walk through a stimulating environment.
Is walking essential to creativity? Many great thinkers, artists, and entrepreneurs throughout history, from Aristotle to Giacomo Puccini to, yes, Steve Jobs, would probably have agreed.
Browse. Go to Wikipedia.org and click “Random article” to be taken to one of the site’s millions of crowdsourced entries—then pretend it wasn’t random at all. What is Wikipedia trying to tell you? (Other online tools will send you to random websites, videos, and so on.)
Once you’ve assembled a set of observations, create a new frame to inspire ideas you can test: “How might we use brutal honesty the way a barber does to build trust with new customers?” That’s a much richer and more interesting prompt than “How can we build trust quickly?” ~
In the early days of Amazon, Jeff Bezos did his best to leave Mondays and Thursdays unscheduled so he could spend the time “trawling for ideas, exploring his own site, sometimes just surfing the Web.”
“The secret to doing good research,” Tversky once said, “is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours.”
Creators ranging from Ludwig van Beethoven to Salvador Dalí to Thomas Edison have relied on naps to refresh their minds and spark insights. (Edison napped in what he called his “thinking chair.”) While sleeping at your office may still be frowned upon where you work, more and more leaders are catching on to the value of this tool.
Organizations from Google to Zappos to Ben & Jerry’s to NASA make dedicated nap rooms available to their employees.
Yet, as that perceptive seventh-grader put it at the very beginning of this book, creativity is “doing more than the first thing that comes to your mind.”
This is a crucial discipline when creating with others. Every problem needs an owner. That owner needs to agree on a plan with the other stakeholders.
At Amazon, they take this principle to its logical extreme: a “single-threaded leader” is “100% dedicated and accountable” for pushing one solution forward. “The best way to undercut a strategic initiative is to make it someone’s part-time job,” writes Tom Godden, an enterprise strategist at Amazon Web Services.
“Most of the seeds fail,” Darrell says, “but they don’t go away until I give up on them.” Likewise, Darrell makes sure to “trim trees regularly.” When this happens, Darrell celebrates failure by giving people a bonus and promoting them into other seeds, plants, or trees. “We never want association with a seed to appear to be a career-limiting move,” he told us.