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.

22 thoughts on “Cataloguing Innovation”

  1. Anyone interested in this post might also be interested to know about the National Small Business Summit taking place in Washington DC in June, any readers attending?


  2. David,

    I agree with you. Don’t know which article you refer to but assume it’s the ‘is light a wave or a particle?’ debate. For me the focus of such questions makes the same mistake I argued against in the paper about ideas in our heads. Physics is an example of making our thinking explicit; it’s about a body of theories not necessarily knowledge. If light appears to be both a wave and a particle our assumption is ‘Light is very complex and that’s why it fits two contradictory theories’ when I argue it’s the way we look at light that contains the flaw. Our theories don’t fit the evidence but instead of questioning our theories we rework our descriptions of the evidence. This continues until someone develops a better theory and we enter a Khunian revolution.

    Great debate!

    Best wishes


  3. Thanks for those additional thoughts Roy. Very interesting. As I read them, two thoughts popped into my head, the first in response to your line “the need to travel to work & the pollution we cause doing so are treated as two separate issues”. On that issue I am right now putting together a short feature on the work of Stanford’s Albert Bandura who argues that we must remove that kind of moral disengagement if we are to, so to speak, save the planet.

    The second thought was in response (you think, therefore I am too) to your line “It is an illusion though because driving to work does add to pollution even if our heads treat the two as separate issues.” This fundamentally sums up quantum physics, as encapsulated in the double slit experiment I wrote about recently.


    I find many books on innovation lack credibility; I seem to read a lot of opinionated theories that are not the product of deeper thinking. What you guys seem to be doing here is delving in to such deeper thinking; it’s great!

    An influential read for me as I questioned the relationship between things in the world, systems, ideas and innovation was Aristotle’s “Book of Metaphysics”. In here he discusses numerous things such as design theory and five ways of grasping the truth:
    *Techne: craft knowledge
    *Phronesis: practical wisdom
    *Episteme: theoretical knowledge
    *Nous; understanding
    *Sophia: wisdom

    What I found even more interesting is that Aristotle argues for a synthetic theory of the world. That means everything is connected and causal effects ripple out to everything (all 5 ways of grasping the truth operate in different degrees simultaneously).

    This is in contrast to modern influences such as Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” which starts to fragment our view of reality and disconnects things (e.g. the need to travel to work & the pollution we cause doing so are treated as two separate issues). It is from such an illusion ‘ideas starting in our head’ takes its credibility; as if my consciousness (I think) takes priority over the external world (therefore I am). It is an illusion though because driving to work does add to pollution even if our heads treat the two as separate issues. Therefore the way we think today is flawed because we treat ‘things’ as if they exist in a disconnected isolation.

    The challenge is to think systemically; a causally joined up theory of interactions. But what does ‘thinking systemically’ mean? For me it means accepting systems exist outside my awareness and my thoughts of them (e.g. Heidegger’s I am, therefore I think). That requires me to enquire into such systems, to discover them and how they function (episteme). From such enquiry comes understanding (nous). If I want to produce an effect, such as creating beer that will make me drunk (Techne), then I look at how things work and adapt them to produce my desired effect. Sadly, the production of my desired effect also has effects (e.g. production of CO2 somewhere along the line—phronesis). I can choose to ignore such side effects until they become such a problem I must do something about them. Or I can understand the oneness of reality and think about my desires and the effects such cause in a responsible way (sophia)

    Poor old Aristotle. He wrote a book of physics with primitive technology, not even a telescope, and got much of it wrong; for example, the sun and stars do not circumvent the earth as he stated. However, for me, Galileo, Bruno and Descartes undermined him in total when only part of his philosophy was wrong. As a consequence we threw away a lot of his wisdom and now spend lots of time blaming individuals for getting things wrong when really it’s the systems driving choices which trips individuals up.

    In closing, not only do I believe ideas are but one element of external recognition and internal understanding, but our ‘fragmenting’ way of thinking means we will always find ideas and innovation a mystery because we look at such incorrectly.

    Hope this stimulates more discussion (;-)

    very best wishes


  5. Julian – interesting thought and thanks for the reference. It’s the same with music, when I listen to new contemporary music I cannot help but find the precedents in other songs.

  6. David – thank you for bringing this to my attention – interesting stuff. If you haven’t read it already I definitely recommend ‘How Breakthroughs Happen’ by Andrew Hargadon for a view on how to foster an idea-generating environment. A big part of that book concentrates on defining what innovation really is, and he argues that 80% of innovation is ‘merely’ recombination of existing technologies in novel ways. In other words, most of time it’s not necessary to actually invent anything radically new, because innovation is an emergent property of the right kind of ideas melting-pot.


  7. Jack – your incisive question cuts to the very quick of consciousness and what we mean by an idea. Do other animals have “ideas” or is that something unique to humans? At the fundamental level ideas are merely patterns of neurones firing and changing chemistry in the brain. Can novel patterns in the format that we, as sentient beings, would describe as ideas arise if there were no sensory inputs?

  8. Adam – I think that’s the point they’re trying to make, that we (and by we that could be a working group, a research team, whatever) are not closed systems but the cognitive theories that have fed idea generation approaches have treated ideas as though we are.

  9. This notion of idea generation seems to be a regressive one. One can imagine mapping idea generation from the most sophisticated back to the information which preceded it. Likewise, The idea to organize the requisite information itself came from an idea based on underlying information. All ideas, it would seem, must stem themselves from the product of precursory ideas. Where, then, does that first idea come from? The idea to take that first suckle of breastmilk? The idea to cry to get attention, or cry as a response to the stimuli of childbirth? When we have no inputs, how can we create an output?

  10. One aspect of the study I glossed over is that they tested their theory by getting lay volunteers to sit in on various technical working groups and found that those people without any technical knowhow at all about the topic being discussed could not come up with sophisticated ideas to solve the problems faced by the working group. This corroborates your point. Anyone can organise a piss up in a brewery without any background input, but it’s pretty hard to design a new electronic gadget from scratch.

  11. David, I want to respond to this, but I don’t know how to say it. Here goes. This is a real, current example.

    I’m developing a concept for a conference on creating the new … new or different ways to develop the new. So I sit down with a big sheet of paper and some fat marker pens. And some ideas emerge. Are they “simply the product of the human mind”? Or are they “the product of a wide range of information sources and responses to them”? Well, I’d say both. I don’t understand the distinction. Or is the author suggesting that I should immerse myself in “information sources” before seeking ideas that are “responses to them”? If this is the case, it depends on what kind of now-to-new (i.e. current reality to desired reality) work I’m doing.

    If I want to invent a new type of mobile phone, I’d better do the groundwork first. (See for my thoughts on this.) It’s said that Albert Einstein was asked what he would do if he had one hour to save the world from nuclear destruction. He replied something like this: “I would spend the first 55 minutes analysing and understanding the problem and the next five minutes generating ideas.” If, on the other hand, I want some ideas about where to hold the Christmas party, little or no groundwork is required. In this case the now-to-new work resembles a puzzle where the answer is already known … it’s just a matter of discovering it. All four types of now-to-new work (problem solving, development, innovation and change) are recursive: I create an idea that bridges the gap between now (I need to design a conference) and new (the conference is happening, and it’s a success). In order to implement the idea, I need what I call a WAM (Ways And Means – a project, solution, strategy, programme, intervention or whatever). The WAM is itself an idea that will require another WAM, and so on. I think that’s what I wanted to say! Jack

  12. Jon – Ahead of pre-scheduling a virtualised interactive verticalisation, I suggest that it is important, a priori, to leverage the primary instigators and quantify our stakeholder averages first…

    …don’t you?

  13. Just thought I’d touch base here, David, and pitch my £0.01 (at current exchange). This is an /interesting concept/. The interim report from Dr. Woodhead highlights the pro-active verbal get-around facilitated in the office by development of a work vacuum. Perhaps we should have a meeting, and organise a meeting about it. We have to leverage the key consumer base of linguistical vomitification, bring the issue to the table and, at this moment in time, get the monkey off our back.

    …or something.

  14. [By email]

    I guess our key message [in writing this paper] should be that busy people in organisations don’t spend enough time developing a deeper understanding, as a team, and many cognitive theories encourage fragmented and superficial thinking. That often leads to organisations spending unwisely and why most attempts at innovation fail. (I seem to remember reading 90% of all new product
    developments fail).

    Innovation is risky because of the way they all go about it, but that ‘way’ is itself not subjected to sufficient scrutiny; innovation is not seen as a manageable capability. That’s the challenge. How can we manage innovation and get better at it?

    Dr Roy M. Woodhead
    EDS – Consulting Services

  15. Indeed, there’s a whole philosophical can of worms waiting to be opened when we ponder what it means to have an idea and from where such an “entity” might arise…

  16. This reminds me of the following (specially the last sentence):

    “Gödel’s Theorem has been used to argue that a computer can never be as smart as a human being because the extent of its knowledge is limited by a fixed set of axioms, whereas people can discover unexpected truths … It plays a part in modern linguistic theories, which emphasize the power of language to come up with new ways to express ideas. And it has been taken to imply that you’ll never entirely understand yourself, since your mind, like any other closed system, can only be sure of what it knows about itself by relying on what it knows about itself.”

    So the way is to open this closed system of our mind to new experiences.

  17. She’s turning on a lightbulb using only her ideas! You should be writing a story about the magical powers of that woman in the picture.


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