Friday, August 9, 2013

Need Radical Ideas? Don’t Trust the Experts!


Jan Martijn has worked on a variety of projects, ranging from Heineken’s annual idea contests to PostNL’s ongoing innovation programme.

Due to his uncommon background of both Engineering Physics and Business Administration he has great association skills, is creative and can give any challenge a creative twist.

Do you know the feeling that when you are looking for novel or radical ideas every time you do an ideation session amongst your employees the winning ideas are incremental ones?

In our business we sometimes see Idea Challenge being organised that aim for novel ideas but eventually end up with a selection of the most feasible ones.

Don’t blame it on your crowd for not being able to generate radical ideas. Who makes the final call when it comes to picking the ‘best’ ideas? Have a good look at the jury and see if its composition has any influence on the outcome.

A lot has been written about aspects that influence the type of ideas that result from an ideation initiative.

Research has been done about the diversity of the crowd, the amount of domain specific knowledge of the participants, gender and the art of question phrasing.

These aspects however all focus on what goes into the initiative, about the type of ideas which are being submitted.

However, no research that I am familiar with concerns what comes out; which are the ideas that eventually get selected.

I think the people who make the final selection have a significant influence on the results of an ideation initiative. “Thank you, Captain Obvious”, might be the first thing that comes to your mind right now, but let me explain.

A jury often consist of topic experts or other knowledgeable people who are asked to identify the ‘best’ ideas. But is an ‘expert jury’ the best choice for identifying radical ideas? When looking for radical ideas, you are probably looking for ideas within a new paradigm.

“Experts are people who have made all the mistakes which can be made in a narrow field”, according to Niels Bohr. They are expert within the current paradigm and apparently they have trouble looking into a new one.

Have a look at the following quotes from topic experts and respectable scientists as found in this blog.
  • “Everyone acquainted with the subject [Edison's lightbulb] will recognize it as a conspicuous failure” - Henry Morton, Scientist and president of the Stevens Institute of Technology.
  • “Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value” - Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre.
  • “We do not see that this device [telephone] will be ever capable of sending recognizable speech over a distance of several miles. Hubbard and Bell want to install one of their telephone devices in every city. The idea is idiotic on the face of it. Furthermore, why would any person want to use this ungainly and impractical device when he can send a messenger to the telegraph office and have a clear written message sent to any large city in the United States, ignoring the obvious limitations of his device, which is hardly more than a toy. This device is inherentlyof no use to us. We do not recommend its purchase” - Western Union officials who reviewed the offer to buy the telephone patent from Alexander Graham Bell.
  • “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers” - Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM in 1943.
  • “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home” - Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC), maker of big business mainframe computers, arguing against the PC in 1977.
What if these people would have all been in the jury of prestigious Idea Challenges in their time? If it was up to them, these radical ideas would have never seen the light of day.

Arthur C. Clarke, the famous science fiction writer, has an interesting view on experts judging radical ideas: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

From this it seems that experts are very capable of evaluating the feasibility of ideas, if it can be done, but they can be very wrong when it comes to judging radical ideas.

So who do you need in your jury or selection committee to make sure the radical ideas are not killed but identified and developed?

You need experts of the future paradigm. It appears that you need people who can see into the future. Captain Obvious again? No.

Who are the people that can predict the future? These are the people that make the future. Entrepreneurs, enthusiasts, people that dare to dream big and are willing to take risks.

Have a look at your organisation and see which people are always doing new things, trying to set up new ways of working, energetic people, inspiring people, the explorers!

These are the ones that will be best able to judge radical ideas and see their full potential. They don’t care whether it is feasible now, time will make it feasible. You were looking for radical ideas weren’t you?

And remember the following quote by Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
image credit: isource.com

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