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27 October, 2012 by

What Albert Einstein Can Teach Us About Ideation

Improve the quality of product ideas by adding structure to the front end of the ideation process

“Creativity is intelligence having fun.”
-Albert Einstein

Our research indicates that R&D executives are frequently disappointed in their ideation exercises. R&D executives commonly complain that ideas aren’t actionable, aren’t relevant, or aren’t economical. They also complain that ideas are insular, vague, or unscalable. Ultimately, it would appear that good ideas are hard to find. Our research indicates that it generally takes 3,000 ideas to generate one commercial success. That’s a lot of time, money, and energy to invest only to meet frustration.

Most companies respond to this dissatisfaction by increasing the number of participants in the ideation process, or by increasing the number of ideation sessions. They are horribly surprised to find that their yields on ideation plummet further and the hole they are in only gets deeper.


Get the Front End Right

What could a man born in the 19th century possibly tell us about the 21st century? After all, Einstein was a man who couldn’t matriculate to a prestigious university, couldn’t pass the entrance exam to the university he did eventually attend, got an “F” in his Beginning Physics course, and was considered such a poor student by the time he did graduate that no university in the whole of Europe would hire him.

It turns out he can tell us quite a bit: “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” Companies that excel at ideation do so by investing significantly more energy understanding “the problem” rather than creating “the solution”. While this contradicts conventional wisdom, companies that do achieve superior returns.

In order to thoroughly understand “the problem,” companies invest significant effort structuring the front end of the ideation process. The best companies use a variety of quantitative and ethnographic research techniques to research the marketplace and map the competitive landscape. This allows companies to deeply understand the needs, problems and aspirations of their customers before ever beginning to brainstorm possible solutions.

General Mills, for instance, fields an iSquad. These employees gather large amounts of consumer data and then educate the extended team. The iSquad leads a deep discovery process which typically generates 500 key findings about the marketplace. The iSquad then works like an artist creating a mosaic. It identifies patterns in the data to distill the 500 findings down to 50 key themes. It then distills those 50 themes down to just 20 opportunity areas. Only then is an ideation exercise conducted.

By tightly winnowing the ideation space, and by providing detailed information about customer needs, frustrations, and aspirations, the yield of the ideation exercise increases greatly. Where a company might see a yield of 1 project per 1000 ideas, companies adopting this approach have seen yields as high as 14 projects emerging for every 100 ideas. Moreover, our research indicates that these companies reduce Concept to Market time by 25% while achieving superior sales growth and reduced cannibalization rates. Companies in industries as far-flung as consumer packaged goods and high-tech use this approach.


Challenge Conventional Wisdom

The deep discovery process leaves no stone unturned and continuously challenges prevailing assumptions and conventional assumption  with real world data. Rather than an idea competing on the basis of whether or not it’s someone’s pet project, the deep discovery results in survival of only the fittest ideas.

“I think [Einstein] was lucky to be at the patent office rather than serving as an acolyte in the academy trying
to please senior professors and teach the conventional wisdom. As a patent examiner … he had a boss
who told him to question every premise and assumption.”

-Walter Isaacson, author of Einstein: His Life and Universe

Even 133 years after his birth, it seems Einstein still has something to teach us. If you are interested in learning more about ideation, or if you are interested in techniques for surfacing customer insights, and are a member of CEB’s Research & Technology Council (RTEC), see the cases below. As well our executive advisors are always happy to work to adapt these techniques to your specific needs.


What CEB is Doing for its Members: The links below lead to resources available to all RTEC members.

  • Sustained innovators such as Avery Dennison and CR Bard achieve superior sales growth and reduced cannibalization by structuring the front end of the ideation process.
  • General Mills used a process of deep discovery to structure the front end of its ideation process and achieve significant gains in market share.
  • Motorola used deep discovery and outcomes-based customer research techniques to invest 5X more time on breakthrough innovation.
  • Baxter re-structured its ideation incentive policies to boost high quality ideas and increase employee engagement by 50%.
  • Novelis created tools and a workflow to better structure its ideation processes, improving idea quantity by 15X and substantially improving idea quality.

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