Ideas in their raw form are unpredictable, fleeting, often random sparks that burn brightly for moments and most-often fade like fireworks in the sky at a summer celebration. The challenge for all of us is to extend the duration of the spark of an idea and give it an opportunity to grow more ideas. It’s this catalytic effect of one idea generating another and a dozen others and ultimately through action, something we bring to life, that is so incredibly powerful.

Unfortunately, we’re mostly horrible in our organizations when it comes to incubating ideas. A thread of a brilliant thought in a meeting that burns out because it’s not isolated, captured, and then nurtured, is a lost opportunity.

And yes, I know many might react with the notion that ideas are cheap and its actions that count. My polite pushback is that good ideas are priceless and often only found in the detritus of hundreds of other ideas or in rare moments of inspiration.

Boy dreaming of flying

In what seems like the narrative for a science-fiction story, every idea (we act upon) generates a potential alternate timeline, complete with unanticipated downstream opportunities and implications. And every idea we lose track of effectively eliminates the possibility of this timeline emerging.

Pushing the science (and fiction) thinking a bit further, ideas are effectively the output of the reactions inside a series of particle accelerators. Except instead of miles of high-tech equipment, the accelerator-effect comes from multiple minds seizing upon, jumping, adding, and ultimately isolating that elusive particle—an idea. Our challenge is to isolate and capture, and then use that idea to catalyze others.

In one of Dan Brown’s novels, the scientists learned to accelerate particles to a point where they can capture and store anti-matter. I want to do the same with our ideas—isolate and capture and then nurture them over time. (I’ll skip the part where mixing anti-matter and matter threatens the existence of humanity.)

You and your team need to be able to pick up the spark of an idea and think about it and then build upon it or, adopt and act on it. But where are these seeds of alternate futures? Mostly, the source is long gone—erased or recycled, with the words captured in a document and stored somewhere on a hard-drive or server never to be seen again.

Want to Create a New Timeline for Your Firm? Build an Idea Lab:

My favorite approach to solving for this problem is distinctly old-school and completely analog. I love the idea of creating a common-space or idea lab where ideas remain visible and the opportunity to visit, think, rethink, add to or integrate differing ideas is as simple as adding to a white-board or flip-chart.

Group of people painting a wall credit: Jon SullivanAt a prior firm, we created what we called a green-space, not so much for the sickly green color on one of the walls, but rather for the notion that this was where we would capture, isolate and incubate ideas.

Physically this area was nothing more than floor-to-ceiling white-board surfaces (incredibly inexpensive at a home center); stacks of blank flip-chart pads and empty walls plus a bevy of markers, index cards, and sticky notes. We started with chairs and decided sitting dulled the creativity!

It turned out to be the best use of 3 walls ever (the area was open to the larger office).

This low-cost and at first, seemingly silly idea turned into our greatest asset–a place for thinking, adding, curating, building-upon and debating ideas. Ultimately, it included an entire emerging strategy wall along with ample space devoted to innovation ideas. And since it was open to everyone, it became a frequent stop for employees from all groups and at all levels to stop and ponder and contribute to the larger narrative around our future.

Few Rules, All Focused on Inclusivity and Generating More Ideas:

Over time, a number of informal values for content in the green space emerged.

  • The room was open to every employee all of the time.
  • Everyone was encouraged to contribute.
  • No one erased anything unless an idea had been moved from the wall into action.
  • Adding, jumping, or “what if?” ideas were viewed as nuggets of gold.
  • A few informal curators emerged, careful to never destroy content, but rather delicately arrange it for consumption. (To prevent the loss of context, pictures were always taken before any content was moved. )

Matter Meets Antimatter with Positive Outcomes:

With no hyperbole, this simple idea (Ha!) evolved into a powerful force in our business. The work in this green-space led to new product innovations, emerging strategy development, and importantly, it got everyone who was interested involved in thinking about and contributing to building some alternate timelines.

An unintended consequence of this creative use of dead wall-space was that the green-space served as the focal point for visiting executives, customers, and business partners. Instead of stale conference room dialog and slide-decks, this space of ideas brought discussions to life and generated new ideas.

The impact of simply creating a location for ideas to exist and evolve was priceless. It was a place where you could literally see and feel and participate in the human particle accelerator of idea development. Ultimately, one would be isolated, nurtured, cultivated, and then freed to create a new timeline.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

All of us from top leaders to front-line associates are in the idea business. While my approach may not be right for you (perhaps you have a better idea!) the theme is unarguable: to find a great idea, you need a lot of ideas, along with a way to capture and isolate and develop the right ones.

Art's Signature