The single best way to have a great idea is to produce lots of ideas. The number of new ideas your organization can produce is a metric for its ability to generate novel solutions to any given problem. Your ideaflow is the most crucial business metric that you’ve never considered. Every business problem is, finally, an idea problem. How well you can solve those problems is how well you and your business can perform, navigate uncertainty, and develop innovations.
Jeremy Utley is the Director of Executive Education at Stanford d.school and an Adjunct Professor at Stanford’s School of Engineering. He is the co-host of the d.school’s widely popular program “Stanford’s Masters of Creativity.” Perry Kelbahn is a co-founding member of Stanford’s d.school faculty. He is an Adjunct Professor and Director of Executive Education at Stanford d.school. He has served as COO of Patagonia and as CEO of Timbuk2.
In this interview, I speak to Jeremy Utley & Perry Klebahn of Stanford’s renowned Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (aka the “d.school”) on ideaflow, their proven strategy for routinely generating and commercializing breakthrough ideas.
Q: What is disruption?
[Perry Klebahn]: Disruption is treated as an event, and it is a constant and that is the interesting sort of fallacy. We are going to write another book and it would be on disruption being that steady state, intermixed with periods of calm and this will include businesses that are operating – for example the economy.
The shock in price change is a ‘disruption.’ It was unbelievable to walk to the grocery store and see all these price changes and how it disrupts my family whilst shopping for the house. I paid $8 for a dozen eggs if I did the math right! More expensive than ever! We are continually being disrupted everywhere as we are in this massive inflation.
As humans we want this state of consistency but if we are taking it as a hypothesis, we are constantly being disrupted, constantly changing and the groundwork we are standing on is shifting all the time. If we are looking at innovation and design tools and some of the work that we do at Stanford, it has become not just interesting tools, but the tools are now crucial for the life in our times.
Q: How do we know which business problems to solve?
[Jeremy Utley]: Firstly, business problems are idea problems because like most other problems we face, they do not have one answer. If you’re doing math, (with advanced math it’s no longer true that problems only have one right answer) unless you are doing that, most of the time there is a single answer to a problem.
The reality is, for any of the problems we face, there are a thousand possible answers and yet when one thinks about problems in need of a solution. We as humans approach it a particular way and there is a lot of bias at play which may be conscious or subconscious.
The Einstellung effect where human beings have been systematically demonstrated to just fixate on the first idea that comes to mind has very little bearing on how good the idea is.
When we say that a business problem is an idea problem, the first thing is: generate lots of solutions first and ideas, recognising that contrary to expectation, the quality of your ideas does not devalue over time, it has the chance to improve significantly particularly if you have tools and mindsets at your disposal. If you treat a business problem as an idea problem, then you start to realise your own creativity doesn’t degrade nearly as quickly and the first ideas thought of are and are not nearly as great as the ultimate solution you ended up implementing.
Q: How do we filter for problem solving?
[Perry Klebahn]: The answer is prioritisation. It is more a problem of how we move quickly through those things. It could be my problems with the grocery store rather than business problems or whether the issue is the need to go to a different food store or the need to change what to cook at home or change the expectations of the family’s eating habits. Or do we need to read more? Should we have been saving money differently?
How do I work through all those hypotheses quickly? If you frame up a single problem to solve such as selling a product or the aim to have a great problem free vacation next year, II would need to frame up all the different challenges and obstacles during planning the vacation including for example how to ensure a stress-free journey airport experience – therefore producing ideas for each of the potential problems that could affect me and whom I am travelling with.. It is like having an empty wall in front of you and filling the wall with potential ideas first, then selecting which things are delightful to ensure a smooth solution.
In conclusion you produce lots of thought-provoking ideas initiated by different types of problem statements, (not having one) and generating a lot of material but doing that really quickly and being versed with that.
Regarding creative competency – we are fanatical about this as this is what you need to build in your employees and your businesses resulting in people that are self-confident in those skills to generate ideas rapidly and come up with all those questions and have output of thoughts competently and effectually.
Q: Can you talk to the concept of ideaflow?
[Jeremy Utley]: There are so many problems that are facing us all the time and it’s all linked and related. The tendency is to avoid the need for more options because anything that’s unfamiliar, as human beings we tend to flee uncertainty. We naturally go towards what we already know because we know how to deal with something we have done before. This often results in postponing or delaying in dealing with the actual issue. This gets back to Perry’s earlier comment about continuous disruption. We delay things that we don’t know how to resolve or don’t have clean answers for.
How do we know which problem to work on? Firstly, start with any of the problems, because the tendency is to say, until we know the perfect problem to work on, we’re not going to do anything. This pattern is seen all the time with people at Stanford. They leave and they go ‘I can’t wait to use these methods whenever I get the perfect project to use them’. This habit is related to disruption.
We believe innovation should be a continuous activity. It should be a capability that you are developing and attending to regularly. It requires a kind of fodder of new problems all the time in order to be refining and developing and when people start to realise it’s actually not about a meeting on the calendar, but more about developing that consistent attention to generating options and a continual focus to new problems to be solved.
You need problems to put into that daily practice and there is never a shortage of problems! By avoiding that unread email because you don’t know how to deal with it, all of a sudden you cope by foregrounding practice rather than foregrounding an event, by foregrounding capability development. People realise they now they have somewhere to place all of these questions that they’ve been deferring, all these challenges that they’ve been ignoring.
Q: How do we build ideaflow into the culture of organisations?
[Perry Klebahn]: This is a key principle of our teaching in our book, and we try to instil this in our students on a daily basis. When thinking about creative practice it is important to understand that your practices in a creative agency in that group may be different than ours at a faculty meeting. Starting with the individual, it is essential to think about what the rituals are and what are the techniques I’m using.
Did I come up with multiple answers for each, did I challenge myself to come up with a few anecdotes for each or am I just going to pick one and just move on in the expediency of time or do I spend a few moments in and generate as a practice?
A great example is we had an individual we talk about in the book who worked for a big pharmaceutical company who started just generating multiple subject lines for emails as a habit, as a practice. He had challenged himself to do this repeatedly and it was a game changer for him! It sounds deceivingly simple, but the premise behind it is huge. If you repeatedly practice around that habit, it almost becomes natural.
My personal habit is I firstly pull out a post-it note, write down three subject lines and I think about it, look at them, and then I type them and my job is actually more enjoyable and it gets positive feedback from all sides.
Companies can instil simple mechanics that would improve practices such as presentations which is a big element of an organisation. – why aren’t presentations presented as rough drafts first. What if we’re going to have a meeting a week from now and our first act is let’s all come up with a pencil drawn three slides and send it to each other for feedback. Imagine how much better our presentation a week from now would be if you just got that. That’s an example of instilling a practice into an organisation.
[Jeremy Utley]: There is a great example of Astro Teller who is the head of Google X and Bob McCann who was one of the progenitors of the design programme at Stanford. Bob had a practice of anytime a student asked him for feedback, he’d say ‘show me three’. I was talking with Astro about that, and he said, ‘that’s funny. I always do five.!’ This results in one idea they really like and then four dummy ideas because they know I’m asking for five. However, what they don’t realise is many times one of their dummy ideas is better than the idea that they were planning on bringing initially, which is to say the very act of forcing oneself to generate alternatives, even if you think they’re spurious, often results in a better outcome.
Q: Is digital culture stifling creativity?
[Perry Klebahn]: Yes, it is stifling. You are driving idea flow with something like assigning them to read say Tolstoy. I personally think their life is going to be better for reading great literature and secondly that’s a critical mindset to innovation. If I’m working non-stop all the time on teaching and I have a syllabus for a class idea and this is all I work on, then I go down to lunch and I don’t take a moment and that’s it. That is not productive!
If one lets go of the problem even for a moment and truly goes into a different space and then come back, for sure one can visualise something fresh.
Reading something that’s truly original and fabulous will take me to a different place and make me let go of the context I have. To have to re-enter that context too often in business that is perceived as a waste of time. Work on the problem! Get this done versus take 2 hours, read Tolstoy, let go of that problem and come back to it. You’re going to get a breakthrough that way.
[Jeremy Utley]: Innovation doesn’t yield to efficiency. I’m not being efficient if I am not being productive. What use am I? Therefore a new radical perspective is key. It’s a divergent pursuit of unexpected input. How can you be efficient about that?
Most MBA students need permission to work differently. They have very robust systems and even intuition around a tailored industrial model and yet we have widespread acknowledgement that’s not what’s going to get us where we need to go. What examples do they draw on? Do they know about Professor Perry Klebahn, who reads Tolstoy to reinvent his class?
Kahneman and Tversky, were going around a Hebrew University, reinventing economic theory. They were just walking and laughing and neither one of them were being efficient, but they were being highly effective. What I think a new generation of leaders would really need and what I hope is that our book, even though it’s a business book, might pass your ‘no business book’ rule.
Our objective is to highlight spectacular creative practice for people who’ve never known there are basic tools that help them increase the likelihood of an effective breakthrough outcome and they are not spreadsheets!
Q: Can businesses that are more creative also win in the talent war?
[Perry Klebahn]: Yes. Different problems require different levels of engagement. If you are a leader in a business and not paying attention to how do I frame up the challenges we are working on in ways that are compelling, then pay attention to engagement.
These can be fabulous tools to unleash all kinds of potential in the employees and capture their imaginations.
How do you frame up all those interesting challenges? How might we make that? Going back to my dinner experience because I just am so irritated to pay so much for eggs today! How might we make our dinner experience worth $8 eggs? You don’t want to make what we were making in sixth grade. The idea of framing up the challenge that might be super compelling to me is how do I make my Israeli shakshuka meal worth $10 a head when it used to be $5 a head when eggs were what they should cost, which is say $4. That’s an interesting challenge that compels me. Its a better way to say it than how am I going to get cheaper eggs? That’s not a very compelling challenge to me.
[Jeremy Utley]: About ten years ago Perry and I were doing a major training programme at a large, worldwide hospitality company. We have different kinds of lab environments around the world, in Brazil and in London and in China and we were coaching people globally about these tools of breakthrough thinking and systems for increasing your likelihood of serendipity.
They came up with the idea of a robot in the hotel lobby, dressed in aluminium foil and it was a great breakthrough as people were into it and excited about it!
In San Francisco at a hotel conference, we had several teams presenting with the CEO and the chairman of the board and the head of legal, HR, Finance etc.. I happened to be sitting next to head of HR who leaned over to me and said I don’t care if none of these ideas get implemented, this programme is already worth it because I have never seen our hotel staff so engaged. It’s truly incredible.
To the point about engagement, I think what people want to be doing is they want to be doing work that matters. What they want to be doing is they want to know that their work is making a difference. At the moment, quitting are just through the roof. Idea flow gives managers and leaders a robust set of tools to dramatically enhance employee engagement.
Q: Is this way of almost giving a license for fun and enjoyment to come back into so many workplaces?
[Perry Klebahn]: Trust is important as well as fun in workplaces. Some trust amongst your colleagues that you can have fun and be vulnerable and come up with different ideas. We could do a quick brainstorm how to make faculty meetings more enjoyable.
If we actually brainstormed ideas, once you get past the sarcastic one like we could not have them, okay that’s an idea…beyond that, how do you make them fun? It can be amazing, if you have the trust amongst everyone in the room.
When people are laughing and actually this thing Jeremy talked about earlier about the goofy dummy ideas are the ones that become genius when you get them out, because there’s something to them…your subconscious drew up some connection between what you think is fun and what you think we have to get done in a faculty meeting and you’ve connected those and offered that out
It might be ridiculous, but someone’s got to say I hear that idea. There’s something to that. We could make that into something that could work and that only happens in this kind of magical process we are talking about, of idea generation.
[Jeremy Utley]: To me the permission to play, to be allowed to have fun is about psychological safety and part of psychological safety is permission to have fun.
You know you are in trouble when people laugh or smile, they look over their shoulder because they hope someone’s not hurting. That’s like the death knell for creativity. But there’s also just even more, I don’t know if it’s more fundamentally or not, I don’t know where it ranks in the hierarchy, but there’s something about permission to not be brilliant, permission to not be the creative one.
We focus a lot on the language and tools of improvisation in our work and one of the things that really struck us a few years ago, a world-renowned improviser named Dan Klein teaches in our programme, and he gave our students a very simple instruction. He said don’t be creative, be obvious. This was an amazing gift because when you realise if the three of us are brainstorming, if the mode is one of us is going to win the brainstorm because we have the best idea, like forget it, we’re toast.
However, if the mental model is we collectively win, if we imagine something that none of us have ever thought about before, then that’s it. It just sets is it about winning? Is it a tennis match? Is there a collective that transcends individual egos, individual ownership, all that stuff. This notion is a simplicity of saying don’t be creative, be obvious, because sometimes if we’re just brainstorming this conversation, by the way, I think a good example of being obvious, none of us are trying to think of like the really blinding, brilliant thing but a good conversation with contributory ideas and exchanges.
Also, safety is critical and to me this was highlighted as I was watching a tribute to Steve Jobs that Sir Jony Ive gave, and I thought it was really touching after Steve Jobs passed and Sir Jony Ive took to the stage and said ‘you know, Steve and I would have lunch almost every day. Often Steve would say to me “Hey, Johnny, you want to hear a dopey idea?” And he said most of the time Steve’s ideas were dopey. Sometimes they were truly terrible. But every once in a while, it would leave us both breathless and in wonder’. They had a relationship where we’re not just doing the brilliance.
When we think of Steve Jobs, we don’t think what a dope…yet what did he do? Steve Jobs routinely shared ‘dopey’ ideas with his collaborator. I would say ask yourself the question, how often do I share dopey ideas with my collaborator? If the answer is rarely, then is it any surprise we aren’t thinking of really ground-breaking things either. Except all of that has to do with this area of permission. Permission around fun. Permission around freedom to state the obvious and to be dopey. There are enormous ramifications again for organisations that are trying to reinvent and rejuvenate, to think about setting new cultural norms around teams
One of our publishers gave us some critical feedback that we reference Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos too much. Granted, they’re breakthrough thinkers. We then decided to create a bonus chapter called How to Think Like Bezos and Jobs and you can get it available for free on our website.
Q: What are the practices that you think all of us could inject into our lives from tomorrow to encourage more creativity, better collaboration, better idea flow into our organisations?
[Jeremy Utley]: The simplest behaviour that we recommend is what we call a daily idea quota, where every single day you take any problem and talk about how to identify or select if that’s of interest later. Important questions would be :- how am I going to start the presentation? What subject line is that per the mention? What subject line am I going to put on this email? How do I close this sales call?
Take the problem and recognise your default is to come up with the answer.
…. you’re sitting there and it’s a lot of like umming and ahhing, and that’s not very productive. What we recommend is take that problem, recognising your tendency is to come up with the right answer and instead shift the goalposts, flip your orientation, and say my goal right now is not to come up with the right answer. My goal is to generate lots of answers. I’m going to challenge myself in the next 10 minutes. Doesn’t matter if I come up with the good answer at the second one, as I’m going to push myself to generate alternatives.
What we find is if someone will dedicate 5 or 10 minutes a day and routinely dedicate bandwidth to the task and responsibility to diverge and generate options before selecting, what they’ll find is that they’re far more attuned to do that in a team setting or in a work context or at home.
Perry and I have both had experiences of our wife saying, hang on, you’re not in an idea flow meeting. As a joke the other day, my wife asked me what I want for lunch, and I gave a suggestion. She immediately said, no. I say, wait are we generating. She goes, no, I don’t care about Idea Flow right now. We’re talking about dinner, right? Every day, try ten rather than one.
Recently a Singaporean executive told us ‘the first idea is hard to come up with. Then I kind of come up with a few. But then after four or five, it’s hard until I tell myself it’s okay to think of something illegal. And then all of a sudden, that opens the floodgates to better ideas.’ Almost like having a minimum threshold, or a quota and pushing yourself to think beyond the kind of immediate answers has lots of benefits not only to the problem at hand, but also to training yourself to respond to problems differently.
Vikas: [to Perry] What would be the practices you would suggest?
[Perry Klebahn]: As humans we are all walking around with the world’s most powerful supercomputer on our shoulders. It is impossible for me to think so many of these problems that have us stalled in day to day as mere mortals.
I’ll give you an anecdote. I was struggling this morning with this class and wanting to bring in some data analysis into this class. I’m stuck and seeking for the place it’s going to fit. I’m looking for how to frame it as an assignment. I only have a certain amount of times. I’m just deep in the logistics of it and it’s not getting anywhere. We use a tool of analogy. We have a chapter on analogies. What an analogy does is if I pull up an analogy and I say in this case, what I did was I said, okay, what are other places where data is really a part of the programme and it works really well? I thought of, maybe for you it’s cricket.
For me it’s baseball. Baseball is a big part of the experience, the data on the players etc I had this idea, this analogy, and I actually downloaded a couple of images of baseball cards that have all the players and all their stats. It helped me understand well as I was visually looking at them as I literally have it on the table here? What if it’s a baseball card? What if it’s just they’re building up stats for this business and they are trying to compare them across a team. That might be an interesting way. For me, it brought up a whole lot of new ideas out of my own personal supercomputer because I brought up all the information I had from baseball and it caused me to go a new direction and come up with ideas and I was no longer stuck.
[Jeremy Utley]: What we have learnt about the people we have observed have a patchwork system. A more creative problem solving, has never been brought into a methodology like we pulled together in Idea Flow. We had people basically confirm this idea flow but without labelling it as they say ‘I never knew that’s what it was called or that’s why it mattered.’ Feedback like that on what we’ve written has really validated what people felt was true, but they thought it was strange or like something that they’d had to argue for or make excuses for. What they’re doing now is going it actually works. That is huge validation for us.
Vikas: Do you think remote working and “revolution” has enhanced or indeed negatively affected this.
[Perry Klebahn]: Currently negatively, I would say, Howe the opportunity of us three being in different contexts and being able to leverage those different contexts is fabulous. Let’s say I’m a leader. I’m a leader of this meeting. I could say let’s all go on mute and cameras off for a few minutes…here’s the problem. I’ll put it in the chat. How might we make Perry’s shakshuka the most memorable dinner of the year? Your challenge in 30 seconds to come up with three ideas.
By virtue, think about this for a second. If I say truly, turn off your camera and just look away from the screen, you’re in a different context. You’re going to look at a painting on your wall or look at the Tolstoy or think about reading and you’re going to come up with different ideas. If we’re sitting in a conference room with terrible art, and our boss sitting there, we’re not going to come up with anything but what we think the boss is going to like.
Personally I think we can leverage context being remote more heavily and the fact that somebody is away from work and can go take a walk. Let me give you a example. We have this tool, a wonder wander. Give everybody a problem and assign them, and you got to be truthful about it, go take a 20 minute walk and just click back on Zoom, just mute and leave it. We’re all going to take a 20 minute walk with this problem in our head and we’re going to come up with a couple of solutions and then we’re going to have a discussion about what those are at the end. That’s a fabulous usage of remote work, because it’s engulfed with a wealth of creativity. It’s unused resource that could make a fabulous experience and get me far more engaged being a remote worker.
Vikas: During remote working because we want to look as engaged as possible rather than be as engaged as possible. The two are extremely different things.
[Jeremy Utley]: During this interview I’ve been taking notes hard and fast and I realise I’m actually self-conscious because my fear is if you all see me look away, you think I’m not focusing.! When the truth is, there’s been so much great gold I’m trying to catch because we’re still learning this stuff, right? I’ll tell you this as like a funny anecdote, and Perry I don’t know if you had the same experience. We recently read our audiobook and I found myself reading my own audiobook.
You know what I thought many times? I wish I could take notes. I wrote the freaking book! We don’t walk around with the book in our heads all the time. I would say, ‘that’s great, I forgot that we knew that’.
It’s like I work with Perry every day and he’s dropping gems all the time! . I go ‘Oh, I’ve never thought about it like that’. We have worked together for 13 years and the way he just answered that question, I’m like, but then to your point, I’m still concerned if I look down, do they think I’m no longer engaged? This is actually ultra engagement.
It’s a great example of there’s all the wrong assumptions in this remote space but to me and what I wrote down just now, was the unused well, that’s not being tapped. I think that’s fantastically insightful.
[Perry Klebahn]: I think there’s a huge wealth of new content to be developed for remote work. These techniques, like another book would be how to apply them or how to run these things in a remote environment. I explained that.
I think if I was a leader running a remote team, I would want to understand how to unleash the potential of being remote. The worst place for creativity is in a standard meeting room, at least in the United States. They’re dreadful. It’s better here. I got loads of things to look out. I got fun items around me and plenty of space to make a mess.