Why ideas don’t have value

In his Pretotyping Manifesto, Alberto Savoia of Google, examines the value of ideas.  He tries selling them, but nobody buys.  He looks at the ratio of innovation to ideas, and finds it to be approximately zero.  Ideas do not have value.  His conclusion:  that the idea of gathering ideas as an important step for innovation is fundamentally flawed.  People mistake raw ideas as the input to an innovation process.  They are not.  Rather, ideas are a byproduct of innovators.

Innovation is a full contact sport.  Machiavelli, in his famous The Prince from 1532 puts it this way, “”There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”  It takes a lot of ideas with a committed innovator to make innovation really happen.  Given all the obstacles to a committed innovator succeeding, continuous idea generation is a necessity.

In my whitepaper on Assessing the State of Innovation, a group of about 30 executives were surprised to find that they had all tried idea management system and were extremely dissapointed with the results.    One executive put it this way, “The suggestion box didn’t work; why did we expect an electronic one to work any better.”  Another said, “If you implement an idea management system, you will end up with a lot of ideas, but not a lot of results.”  Interestly, the only time idea management systems seemed to work was when they were being driven by a committed innovator — a person — who took the suggestions as input on a specific problem he or she was trying to solve and make something happen.

Jonah Lehrer reports some very strong evidence to this point in his blog, The Necessity of Funding Failure, where he discusses a study comparing two medical research funding groups:  the NHI and the HHMI.  The NHI carefully rates research proposals on multiple criteria; the HHMI funds researchers and encourages them license to explore interesting topics.  On the difference between the two organizations, Lehrer says “The data was clear: In every biomedical field, the risky HHMI grants were generating the most important, innovative and influential research.”

So if you have a choice to spend money on innovators or on ideas, put your money on the innovator.