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The Cult of Ideas

“Innovation is not about ideas—it is about being productive with those ideas. It is about implementing them and generating value.”

The Cult of Ideas is a dangerous cult lurking within the field of corporate innovation. It is a disturbing cult in which members worship massive numbers of ideas above all else. On the surface, this seems a good thing. After all, innovations are founded on ideas, are they not? So, if a company wants to innovate, the more ideas it creates the better. Sadly, however, the ugly truth is that the cult of ideas can actually stifle creativity and inhibit innovation.


The Cult of Ideas is the worship of large numbers of ideas above all else in innovation. You see it when Starbucks proudly proclaims that they have received over 100,000 ideas from their online-suggestion website. You see it when IBM brags of Idea Jams that generate tens of thousands of ideas. You see it whenever a company boasts of an innovation initiative, solely based on the number of ideas collected.

It is easy to understand why the ‘Cult of Ideas’ has grown so powerful in recent years. Most senior managers come from analytical backgrounds, often with MBAs from prestigious university. And that background has generally served them well as they manage operations in ever more complex businesses.

Unfortunately, finding meaningful numbers in the innovation process can be tricky. Technology and pharmaceutical companies can count their patents—and many do. But patents fail to measure operational efficiency and business model innovation, which are also important. Moreover, many innovative firms take out few if any patents. The number of new products launched every year, or the income generated by products introduced in the past five years is another approach for measuring product innovation—but it also fails to recognize other forms of innovation. Moreover, a visit to any supermarket suggests we must question whether the introduction of new products truly represents innovation. A look at all the variations of Nivea shampoo products, many of which claim to be “new”, for instance, is hardly indicative of product innovation.

So, managers have latched on to the counting of ideas and the assumption that lots and lots of ideas must be a good thing. This has been enhanced by innovation-service providers who also espouse the notion that more ideas are better than fewer. And from this situation has grown: the Cult of Ideas.


The Cult of Ideas is not inhabited only by analytical senior managers. Many innovation consultants, familiar with brainstorming methodology and creative problem solving, have learned to stress the importance of generating a lot of ideas in hopes of finding a few gems. Brainstorms, for instance, are often judged by the number of ideas generated. Likewise, idea management software vendors will boast about the number of ideas their software can generate, conveniently forgetting that it is employees and not the software that generates ideas.


Of course, ideas in their own right are not bad at all. I should know; I have lots of them myself. So many, I sometimes want to switch them off. Indeed, it used to concern my girlfriend that I would always come up with ideas about new businesses to launch, new activities to do, and new paths to follow. These ideas worried her. Surely, she thought, it could not be a good thing for me to do so many things or to throw away everything I have done professionally, in order to follow some whim.

But as she has come to know me, she has learned that I have even more ideas than she has shoes. She knows that I will talk about an idea today, and forget about it tomorrow. So, today, she smiles knowingly whenever I announce a crazy idea and only begins to worry when I continue to talk about an idea for an extended period of time. Nevertheless, she reminds me from time to time, that my ideas can easily become a distraction from getting anything productive done.

She is right, of course. Moreover, the same thing is true for companies. If they measure innovation by the number of ideas generated and focus too much on generating lots of ideas, rather than implementing ideas, they fail to get anything productive done. But, of course, innovation is not about ideas—it is about being productive with those ideas. It is about implementing them and generating value.


Companies—like Gore, Google, Apple and others—that we think of as true innovators, never brag about how many ideas they generate in this initiative or that initiative. Rather they demonstrate innovation. Indeed, if you look at Fast Company’s list of most innovative companies—those on the top ten are recognized for their innovations and not for quantities of ideas.


The solution is simple. If you want to innovate, you need to innovate. This means your focus should not be on the number of ideas generated, but the value generated through implemented ideas. A million ideas will do you no good if you do not implement any of them!

In order to innovate, you need an end-to-end innovation plan that looks not only at idea generation, but also on focusing idea generation on strategy, evaluating ideas efficiently and developing processes to implement the more outlandish ideas that could be breakthrough innovations.

Instead of simply trying to wring as many ideas as you can out of each employee, allow employees time to develop ideas. Companies like Google and 3M are famous for allowing their employees to use 20% of their time to work on personal projects. Many great ideas have come from this personal time. Indeed, Google’s founders have “tracked the progress of ideas that they had backed, versus ideas that had been executed in the ranks without support from above, and discovered a higher success rate in the latter category”.

Moreover, think about what you would like employees to be doing during that 20% of their time: generating as many ideas as they can, or developing a small number of ideas into experimental projects.

Likewise, your company should not be focusing on generating as many ideas as possible. Rather it should be focusing on developing a small number of interesting ideas into trial projects.

Cover image (Man thinking) and top image (Communication) from Shutterstock

This is a cross-post from Jeffrey Paul Baumgarner.

Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of The Way of the Innovation Master and Report 103, creator of Jenni innovation process mgmt software, founder of jpb.com & father of two great sons. Follow him on Twitter at @creativeJeffrey.

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