Idea Selection Illustrates the Diversity of Thinking Needed for Innovation
I was surprised to discover that idea selection illustrates the diversity of thinking needed for innovation. I was taught that idea generation takes divergent thinking while idea selection takes convergent thinking. We use divergent thinking when faced with an open-ended task that has many responses such as the following: how might we use our summer vacation next year? We use convergent thinking when looking for one response such as the following: What will we do for spring break next year? Idea generation involves divergent thinking because we are looking for different options to address a problem or opportunity. We switch to convergent thinking for idea selection because we are looking for the best option to address a problem or opportunity. But then I remembered in my training to be a facilitator of creative problem solving that we were cautioned to not lose novelty during idea selection because novelty is important to innovation. So, you are looking for the best option during idea selection but that can result in picking the most practical option and having a bias against novelty. In fact, my research of the different methods for idea selection revealed a range of different types of thinking including meta-cognition, strategic thinking, and lateral thinking.
I surmise that diversity of thinking is needed in idea selection because of how important idea selection is to a sustainable business. In fact, some would argue that idea selection is more important than idea generation! Of course, you can’t select ideas without first having ideas to select from.
The challenge of idea selection means facilitators need to allot more time to idea selection than to idea generation. Investing in idea selection is important because the cost of picking the wrong idea can be hefty to companies. Remember New Coke? New Coke was the company’s attempt to tweak the classic recipe and make an already sweet soda even sweeter. Sales fell so precipitously that just 77 days after the release of New Coke in 1985, the company brought back the old formula as Classic Coke. Investing in idea selection is also important because of the potential upside of picking the right idea. The history of Netflix compared to Blockbuster shows the upside of picking the right ideas. Netflix first implemented the idea for a DVD-rental and delivery service in 1997. Netflix soon dominated the video rental industry because Netflix didn’t have physical stores which led to higher operating costs for Blockbuster. Netflix next implemented the idea for streaming in 2007 which further disrupted the video industry making DVDs irrelevant.
Idea selection calls for thinking and thinking is inherently flawed by thinking traps. A thinking trap is faulty thinking that arises from automatic processing in the nonconscious brain. Automatic processing by the nonconscious brain happens when our capacity for logic and decision-making is overwhelmed. Researchers estimate that we can hold up to five pieces of information in our short-term memory depending on the nature of the information which is not a lot of capacity when comparing many different ideas. The brain does have a solution when our capacity for logic and decision-making is exceeded called cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are automated shortcuts in our vast nonconscious brain that filter the incoming information down for conscious processing. But we can make errors as a result of deploying cognitive biases. One way to guard against errors from cognitive biases is to practice different types of thinking. In this post, I explore the ways meta-cognition, strategic thinking, and lateral thinking improve idea selection.
Meta-Cognition to Improve Idea Selection
Meta-cognition is the type of thinking that helps us reflect on our thinking. Meta-cognition is particularly important to combat errors from experience biases. Experience biases are cognitive biases driven by our belief that what we sense to be reality is reality. Cognitive biases are patterns of thinking that are programmed in our non-conscious brain to help us process all the information that is coming to the brain at any point in time. Experience biases are the tendency to believe that what we experience is actually what is happening. Experience biases seem to make a lot of sense until you consider that less than 1% of the information coming into our brain is being processed consciously. This leaves a lot of room – 99 plus percent of incoming information – to miss information that may be important or helpful to understand or make the best decision in a given situation. Let’s consider some of the experience biases that can cause errors in idea selection.
One example of an experience bias that can cause errors in idea selection is overconfidence bias which is the tendency to be over-confident in our abilities and as a result take greater risks. Perhaps surprisingly, experts are more prone to this bias than laypeople. An expert might make the same inaccurate prediction as someone unfamiliar with the topic but the expert will probably be more convinced that they are right. For example, the Ford Pinto was an idea selected to combine iconic design with an affordable price tag. Ford was confident in their ability to implement the idea even though cost-cutting measures would be needed. Cost-cutting measures led to the Ford Pinto having a gas tank that could rupture during a collision which led to the risk of the car exploding. There were enough safety incidents with the Ford Pinto that Ford had to recall 1.5 million models of the car.
Another experience bias that can cause errors in idea selection is the false consensus effect which is the tendency to overestimate the extent to which others agree with you or others think like you do. For example, Colgate had great name recognition with their toothpaste and had the idea to use this name recognition to produce frozen foods so they introduced Colgate lasagna. Colgate thought their name recognition meant a good reputation but customers associated the Colgate name with minty toothpaste so they had no appetite for Colgate lasagna.
A final experience bias that can cause errors in idea selection is egocentric bias or the tendency for information about oneself to have a disproportionate effect on judgments and decisions. It is possible that egocentric bias was at play when Richard Sackler decided to develop Oxycontin, a controlled release form of a Schedule II narcotic. Sackler wanted to make a fortune and create a name for himself so needed a blockbuster drug to turn around the failing business he had inherited. Sackler had the idea for a powerful pain killer that could eliminate chronic pain. Sackler became so enamored with making money that he used deceit and corruption to commercialize and market Oxycontin which led to the deaths of many and ruined countless families.
One way to combat the errors to idea selection from experience biases is to bring in different perspectives from others during idea selection. Idea selection by a group works best when the type of collaboration that is best for creativity and innovation is practiced. Collaboration key to creativity and innovation is designed to incorporate different perspectives into idea selection which reduces the probability of errors from any one individual’s experience biases.
There are four pillars to the type of collaboration most conducive to creativity that can be used for an idea selection session. These elements are based on research by Christian Byrge at Aarlborg University in Denmark and are consistent with Dr. Keith Sawyer’s creativity research findings (Keith Sawyer, Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, New York: Basic Books, 2007). In fact, Byrge’s Creative Platform uses improv exercises and Dr. Sawyer ‘s approach to creativity is informed by his experience as an accomplished improv jazz pianist. The 10 conditions Sawyer has found for creativity to flourish in a group map to the 4 pillars of Byrge’s Creative Platform model. First is the confidence pillar which includes member autonomy, member familiarity with one another, and the practice of balancing ego with listening to others. A powerful way to build confidence in a team is to establish psychological safety with norms to be humble in the face of challenge, curious about what others can bring, and willingness to take risks to learn fast (https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_edmondson_how_to_turn_a_group_of_strangers_into_a_team?language=en). Second is the motivation pillar which provides the intrinsic motivation needed to take risk, persevere in the face of failure and setbacks, and do the work to insure effective communication. Third is the concentration pillar which necessitates clarity in the goal of and process for the idea selection session. Fourth and finally is the accessing diverse knowledge pillar which requires close listening and equal participation. Equal participation is what distinguishes diverse teams more likely to innovate from those that are not (Anita Williams Woolley, Ishani Aggarwal, and Thomas W. Malone, “Collective Intelligence and Group Performance,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 24:6, 2015, pages 420–424).
Strategic Thinking to Improve Idea Selection
Strategic thinking can improve idea selection because it involves seeing the big picture and planning ahead before putting thought into action. One of the things that can be gleaned from innovation failures is to incorporate strategic considerations like understanding customer needs, studying competitor capabilities, and gauging market demand. There are strategic approaches used by companies for selecting new product or service ideas based on lessons learned from successful and not-so-successful new product launches.
Phillips has developed a process for idea selection based on their experience with successful and not-so-successful new products and services. Phillips’ idea selection process is based on information gathering to vet new product ideas in three areas (https://www.engineeringsolutions.philips.com/insights/how-to-choose-best-ideas-innovation/). The first area is understanding customer and stakeholder needs with respect to the idea. The second area is exploring other options to address the problem the idea addresses. And the third area is considering the best business model for and the business risks associated with the idea. There is also the FORTH innovation model (https://www.hypeinnovation.com/blog/using-the-forth-method-to-navigate-your-innovation-journey) which embraces an iterative process between ideation and idea selection in which ideas are refined along the way. The FORTH innovation model includes steps to explore different perspectives to draw new and valuable insights and involve stakeholders in testing out innovation concepts.
Lateral Thinking to Improve Idea Selection
Lateral thinking can improve idea selection by imposing different perspectives to test ideas in new ways and increase the probability of picking the most robust idea. Lateral thinking is a structured way to think that is different from the way our brains our programmed to think. Our brains are programmed to think in terms of patterns and reason like gathering all available data and moving from one step to the next until you reach a logical conclusion. Lateral thinking is designed to avoid patterns and reason to produce new ideas and insights.
There are categorization tools to practice lateral thinking in idea selection. One categorizations tool to practice lateral thinking in idea selection is the four categories method (https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/how-to-select-the-best-idea-by-the-end-of-an-ideation-session). The four categories method is a way to view ideas according to their level of abstraction. The ideas are placed in one of four categories with the most abstract category being “long shot” and the least abstract category being “most rational.” The other two categories are “most likely to delight” and “darlings.” Selecting ideas by category helps you avoid the tendency to pick only the most logical ideas. Another categorization tool for idea selection is Bingo Selection which uses categories based on form factors. For example, you might establish three categories like physical prototype, digital prototype, or experience prototype.
The most classic way to apply lateral thinking during idea selection is through Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats technique. The Six Thinking Hats technique provides a range of thinking styles to apply to idea selection so ideas are assessed from a wide range of possible angles. The White Hat calls for you to consider information and facts that are known or needed in idea selection. The Yellow Hat explores the positives and probes for value and benefit in idea selection. The Black Hat calls upon judgment to spot the difficulties and dangers and ask where things might go wrong in idea selection. The Red Hat focuses on expressing emotions and feelings and sharing fears, likes, dislikes, loves and hates in idea selection. The Green Hat focuses on the possibilities, alternatives, new concepts, and new insights in idea selection. Finally, the Blue Hat is used to manage the thinking process and is summoned when someone starts thinking outside the current thinking hat and there needs to be a reset.
Summary of Ways to Improve Idea Selection
I have often associated idea selection with convergent thinking or focusing in on one solution. But one of the reported advantages of divergent thinking is flexibility which is important in idea selection because it is hard to pick the idea that will lead to a successful innovation without further vetting. In fact, many companies find that idea selection is harder than idea generation as evidenced by the failed attempts at innovation. One way to improve idea selection is to incorporate different kinds of thinking beyond convergent thinking into the process.
One way to improve idea selection is to practice meta-cognition. You can practice metacognition or thinking about your thinking by using a diverse team for collaboration in idea selection. It is important to motivate team members by gaining common understanding on why the idea selection is important and to use an idea selection process that invites equal participation across team members. It is also important to establish psychological safety in the team by establishing norms to be humble in the face of challenge, curious about what others can bring, and willing to take risks to learn fast. Another way to improve idea selection is to incorporate strategic thinking because past innovation failures teach the importance of strategic considerations like understanding customer needs, studying competitor capabilities, and gauging market demand. There are many different techniques to be strategic in idea selection such as Phillip’s innovation process and the FORTH innovation process. A final way to improve idea selection is to incorporate lateral thinking to avoid our default modes of thinking and be open to other perspectives. Lateral thinking can be applied in idea selection using different techniques to categorize ideas or using de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats technique. If you think in different ways to select ideas, then you improve the chances for successful innovation.