Cataloguing Innovation

Idea lightbulb

An intriguing paper on the notion of idea generation came to my attention this week. It’s from the International Journal of Management Practice, which might have suggested something rather dry and off topic, but the first named author Roy Woodhead is in the School of Technology, at Oxford Brookes University, UK and researches in the field of “IT service management” while his co-author, M.A. Berawi at the University of Malaya, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, is currently researching value management and innovation in the context of major civil engineering projects.

So, what made this paper stand out? Well, seemingly its main conclusion is that over recent years management-speak has overtaken, perhaps not surprisingly some would say, the actual generation of ideas within an industry, an R&D environment, or elsewhere. So, the whole idea of coming up with something new, inventing, in other words, has become detached from the practical and been lost in the processes of managing information. Common sense, apparently, has once again been usurped by the need to organise.

Management is not wholly to blame for this disjuncture, the researchers hint. In fact, they point out that the reason for the split boils down to an assumption about how our brains work in creative mode. This cognitive theory of creativity holds that ideas are located exclusively within the human brain. This assumption, Woodhead and Berawi suggest has led to a dearth of research into how creativity leads to new ideas because it seems like a problem already solved. This has stifled research into idea generation.

Now, Woodhead and Berawi say it is time to challenge this assumption and to build an alternative view based on the relationship between our intentions and their effects, which could develop new perspectives on idea generation by helping us understand that ideas are not the simply the product of the human mind but are the product of a wide range of information sources and responses to them. It may be obvious, most ideas do not emerge spontaneously from our subconscious, they are seeded and moulded by what we sense and the information we acquire. It may be obvious, but this was apparently not considered part of the theory of idea generation.

The researchers tear into the conventional wisdom of idea generation and the approaches used in management to stimulate R&D and to appraise ideas, they have taken case studies among major technological organisations, predominantly in the oil industry as their raw materials. They emphasise that poor performance among those charged with generating ideas is usually seen as a weakness of the individuals involved, rather than a problem with the assumptions about the standard idea generation techniques employed. As such, the researchers say, under-performance of better idea generation is left unquestioned.

The researchers’ conclusions seem, in retrospect, rather obvious, but they have apparently been ignored for many years because of strongly held belief in a cognitive theory that does not bear closer scrutiny. “We believe our potential to generate new possibilities has been reduced by the view that ideas originate within an individual,” the researchers state. After all, you would not expect a child to be able to design an efficient nuclear power station or devise a recycling system for a metropolis. In this notion lies the key to better idea generation. “Idea generation is something to do with the way external systems work, our knowledge of their workings and an ability to conceive of alternative ways to make things happen.” In other words, our minds can manipulate a new idea, but the new idea emerges not endogenously but from the relationship between mind and world.