Ideaflow, innovation is fishing, not hunting

Ideaflow. Quantity over quality? That is the question. Is creativity a skill, a behaviour or a gift? What stops the flow of ideas? Look no further. That is why the universe invented “Ideaflow: Why Creative Businesses Win”. How to cultivate creativity in an organisation. How to stop the fixation on feasibility and relevance and the squashing of every divergence from the status quo? 

Move away from a single point of failure

Conventional business education runs directly counter to the innovation mindset. Business students are trained to find the single right plan. Very few entrepreneurs go to the effort of considering any alternatives before committing to the first good one they have. Just because something turns a profit doesn’t mean it’s the best possible use of your time. “You have to ask: What other ideas are out there?”This book argues that the quality of your creative output—successful solutions to novel problems—is largely determined by quantity. The diversity of your creative inputs drives the diversity of ideas you generate.

No ideas, no tomorrow

Creativity is the craft of problem-solving; every problem is an idea problem. Creativity in an organisation is essential for survival. It is never safe to stopper the flow of new ideas, regardless of outlook and external conditions. Pausing innovation for even a moment has a lasting effect. Ideas are solutions to future problems, and they represent tomorrow’s profits. No ideas, no tomorrow.

You need volume

What sets the winners apart is volume. World-class innovators routinely generate many more possibilities than average. That is necessary because to arrive at a single successful product, 2,000 ideas become 100 working prototypes. Those 100 prototypes become 5 commercial products. Of the final 5, 1 will succeed. So the waterfall is 2,000:100:5:1. And the most creative companies test everything.

How do you score on ideaflow

Ideaflow is the foundation, the essential force that drives all future success. The book asks how capable you are of generating a flood of ideas on demand. What number of novel ideas can a person or group generate around a given problem in a given amount of time? That is the idea flow metric you should measure. Ideaflow is a useful proxy for measuring overall innovation capacity. The book also calls it creative health. How healthy are you? Learning to systematically generate, test, refine, and implement ideas makes every aspect of life and work easier. It’s the skeleton key, the meta-skill, that unlocks hidden potential. For individuals, idea flow is a competitive advantage. For companies, it’s the fountain of youth.

The problems with innovation 

There are a few problems with innovation. Here the book reminds me of “Pirates in the navy. It starts with a fixed perception of how work should look like. Creativity doesn’t look creative when you’re doing it. In a creative organisation, people will occasionally stare off into space or, the ultimate cliché, doodle. Leave them be. Let them go for a walk in the park. Let them meditate, journal, exercise, reflect, meet strangers, nap, cook, shower, daydream, play games, hike, etc. Create the mental space for tactical retreats from the idea and let the subconsciousness and/or universe do its work.

Effort and time

Boosting ideaflow requires sustained effort over time. Creativity is a capacity you train and develop, like physical strength or flexibility. Just as professional athletes develop a highly accurate awareness of their physical needs and limits, members of a creative team learn how they think and perform at their best. A daily idea quota is the first step toward training your brain to develop ideas. Over time, the idea quota will develop your capacity to release new ideas on demand.

3s process

Performing an idea quota is a simple, three-S process: 

  1. Seed. Select a problem and study it. 
  2. Sleep. Let the unconscious mind process the problem. 
  3. Solve. Flood the problem with ideas. There are some rules:

Some rules

  • Quality to quantity
  • Precious to scrappy
  • Perfection to practice
  • Done to doing
  • Your perspective to someone else’s perspective
  • Isolation to collaboration 
  • Relevance-requiring to randomness-embracing 
  • Focused to mind-wandering
  • Order to chaos 
  • Your expertise to unfamiliar territory 
  • Output-focused to input-obsessed
  • Learn-by-doing versus learn-by-thinking.
  • Candour is crucial to ideaflow.

Start with faking until you make it. When you act like a creative person, you begin to feel more comfortable being creative in your work and encouraging creativity in others. ideaflow grows slowly at first, particularly if you’ve thought of yourself as a noncreative person for most of your life. Be patient with yourself and get these foundational habits in place before you suggest them to others.

The lessons

  • Creativity is never truly a solitary feat, even if you work primarily alone. We always make our greatest impact by working in tandem with others. Creative problem-solving and innovation are primarily collaborative.
  • Deep-seated instinct tells us it’s safer to stay away from the bushes in general, even if some might hide tasty fruit. To attempt something new, you’re fighting against the brain’s bias.
  • Unleashing the full measure of your ideaflow demands psychological safety.
  • Refuse the temptation to judge which ideas are keepers.
  • If you want to remember something, write it down now, right in the moment. Show the brain what matters to you by taking out that pen.
  • In your notes, document not only your own ideas but also interesting quotes, facts, stories, statistics, and other inputs that might be relevant down the line. 
  • Go big. A limited writing surface limits your thinking as well. 
  • Go analogue. Write.
  • Review your notes regularly to leverage the serendipitous intersection between your past and present selves.
  • Don’t work at all on Fridays.
  • A multitude of bad ideas is necessary for one good idea.
  • The movement of ideas is key. We want ideaflow, not an idea pond.
  • For quantity to soar, relax expectations around quality.
  • Frame failed attempts as results.
  • Get a diverse team. Creative collisions provoke fresh thinking. Hotbeds of corporate innovation like Xerox PARC and Bell Labs flourished because their leaders assembled experts from very different disciplines and refused to put them in silos. Read “Rebel ideas”.
  • If you consider the options and then decide on selection criteria, you will inevitably design criteria that steer toward your subconscious preferences.
  • Excitement is the fuel of innovation. The key to achieving world-class results is expecting delight.
  • Develop different decision axes: time to implement, potential cost, etc. Rigorously sift all the ideas through one filter after another: ROI, EBITDA, Effort/Value, and on and on.
  • Trying to be a good picker is wrong. Play the probabilities.
  • You’ll be surprised by how much you can learn by something as simple as walking down the street and asking a stranger, “Wanna buy this?”
  • Trivial ideas can be huge.
  • Desirability trumps feasibility. Once you see a huge spike of desire for an idea, you’ll be amazed by how quickly feasibility gets figured out.
  • There’s a difference between what people say they’ll do and what they actually will.
  • Design experiments so cheap and quick that the risk doesn’t even register.
  • Seek momentum, not perfection.
  • Experiments are how we unearth hidden opportunities. Learning what works is more valuable, but even knowing what doesn’t work helps shape your judgment and gut on what to try next.
  • Eagerly seek out those people likely not only to see the flaws in your thinking but to offer up alternatives way out of left field.
  • Prolific innovators cultivate a constellation of peers and collaborators, investing in a long-term portfolio of perspectives that will pay dividends throughout their careers.
  • Don’t forgo close relationships in favour of one-time encounters with random strangers.
  • As efficient as strong ties are at getting things done, it’s through weak ties that we stumble onto our most exciting discoveries.
  • As artists and meditators have long understood, there is the world “out there”, and then there is the 360-degree sensory and imaginative theatre in your head.
  • Be problem-rather than idea-centric.
  • Just build stuff. Read “Build“.
  • Apply assumption reversal. Assumption reversal is about identifying what you take for granted about a situation and deliberately assuming its opposite is true.
  • Apply anthropology and observe. Read “Small data”.
  • There is no substitute for real-world exploration.
  • More input, better output. Rubbish in, rubbish out.
  • Give the problem a break when you are stuck.
  • The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours.
  • There’s a difference between understanding how creativity works and practising it yourself, between thinking and doing.


The books spent a lot of time on the importance of testing. The key to effective innovation is velocity. Ideation and action should feed into each in a continual cycle. You won’t supercharge innovation at your organisation until you’ve established a short, direct feedback loop for all your ideas. Test an array of ideas simultaneously by creating a portfolio of ideas and then prototyping them in parallel. We get stuck in the mindset that we must generate a ton of ideas at the start and then pick the “right” one. The pressure of perfection leads to sterile and safe choices. Validating any idea requires real-world experimentation. When you select ideas for testing, as opposed to full-on implementation, all you’re committing to is a quick, scrappy test.  Read “Black box thinking“.  Rapid, scrappy tests should take hours, tops. When you design tests, whether for boot-strapped start-ups or multinational corporations with massive R&D budgets, always optimise for experimental efficiency. Stop trying to predict winners. Stanford Graduate School of Business research found that “participants tended to under-rank their highest-potential idea.”

You cannot pick winners

You don’t just generate a bunch of ideas, test one, and then scale it up like crazy if it works. Instead, you go through stages: test, analyse results, refine, and test again. Test before you invest, not once but at every stage. Even if you’re an acknowledged expert in your field, you simply aren’t qualified to decide which ideas to pursue in the absence of real-world data. Innovation without validation is the equivalent of pointing your car in the direction of home, closing your eyes, and hitting the gas pedal. 

The corkboard R&D department

 You can establish a quick-and-dirty idea pipeline with little more than a large corkboard. If some of your team works remotely, use a virtual whiteboard tool along the following lines instead. Position it in a prominent spot—a well-travelled corridor, for example—and leave a generous supply of index cards, markers, star stickers, and pushpins within easy reach. Whenever anyone has an idea to share with the team, they will pin it on the board. No byline. Each idea should stand on its own. Whether you have a corkboard R&D department or a hallway innovation lab, you’re never committing to anything more than a quick and dirty test with any idea.

Bug list

Keep a “bug list.” The things that bug us tend to spark the best contributions. Paste this useful prompt right at the top of the corkboard to kickstart contributions: “It bugs me that …”

The crowd

To glimpse the future, advertise these not-yet-existent offerings to millions of people through social media. Then they track how many people click through. The data generated by each experiment leads to another, more refined version of the pitch until the demand is undeniable. In this way, prehype rapidly vets possibilities in the marketplace, reducing the uncertainty involved in any single investment.


To maximise the odds of success, thought experiments must give way to actual experiments, even for something as simple as the font used on a website. You can easily offer an array of products or services to large numbers of people and find out who will pay for each one. Online tools like Wix, Squarespace, Canva, and Figma make it easy for non-designers to whip up posters, online advertisements, simple websites, and even software interfaces to prototype ideas.


Physical prototypes are within reach for everyone. User-friendly software and affordable 3D printers make it possible to create nearly any shape for an experiment. With the right tools and a little effort, nearly any aspect of your idea can be prototyped and tested in the real world with reasonable fidelity.

Other ways to experiment

  • Add a button to the website. 
  • Distribute a poll internally. 
  • Design and distribute brochures, signs, or door hangers with a URL call to action or QR code that you can track. 
  • Send emails with different subject lines or offers and compare open rates, clicks, or replies
  • Make a post or send a message to targeted users on social media and track responses. •
  • Build two possible slides to cap off a presentation and test them with colleagues. 
  • Give meeting participants the ability to vote between options. •
  • Add offers to customer service calls and track responses.

Mining for perspectives 

Mining for perspectives is how the most interesting treasures are found. See One thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination, is to draw up a list of things that would never occur to him!”

Change your perspective

The book suggests a number of ways to develop different perspectives:

  • Set up a leaning circle.
  • Set up Bookbuzz session .
  • Apply perception pioneering
  • Write, and send contributions directly to the people who will benefit from them rather than broadcasting every thought to everyone you can reach in your network.
  • Cross-pollinate As important as your ties with collaborators and colleagues are, putting all your energy into your close working relationships can stifle innovative thought.
  • Look for nodes. Reach out to someone whose work straddles interdepartmental borders.
  • Translate expertise from one domain to another. 
  • Leverage inexperienced experience.
  • Shuffle experts between departments.
  • Look for the rookie advantage.
  • Seek complementary collaborators
  • Create “exploration time” to give employees the bandwidth to focus exclusively on pushing ideas forward.

Get away from consensus

The consensus subconsciously shifts your actual perspective. Since your goal is to generate the widest possible array of perspectives, it’s crucial to actively inhibit this instinct. If disagreement is in any way discouraged, let alone punished, the consensus will steer every decision. Encouraging and welcoming dissent is not the same thing as changing your mind to suit whatever feedback you receive. To get to that point, however, you must listen to dissent dispassionately and judge the contribution on its merits.

Empathic interviewing

To really understand the behaviour of others and finally grasp what they mean with the words they use, shake up your perceptions using the empathetic interview tools. This will help short-circuit your preconceived notions to reveal the genuine feelings, beliefs, and preferences of others. It’s the difference between hearing and listening. When you talk to a user or customer with this tool, your goal is to understand their experience on an emotional level. Study the word choice. People often use common terms differently than you do. Painstakingly withhold judgment. Stories also help make abstract ideas concrete.


Scientists rely on patient, careful observation to make discoveries. It takes dedicated effort to force yourself to really look at something. Most of our sensory perceptions drift below the level of conscious attention. With enough patience, you’ll be able to look at a situation long enough to finally see it. As the seconds tick by, new details will emerge, and this will keep happening long past the point you feel certain you’ve seen everything there is to Make it uncomfortable. If watching something happen for five minutes feels weird, set a timer for ten. Then, settle in. Before you know it, the brain will insist more urgently. Nothing to see here. Move along. Respect the timer, however, and you will eventually exhaust the brain’s capacity to filter out the unknown and unexpected. Insights will begin to emerge as you surrender to the moment. Developing your power of observation isn’t always a matter of brute force. Curiosity can pull you where discipline and willpower would otherwise have to push. Managed deliberately and strategically, curiosity can be an extraordinarily powerful force for innovation,

Other techniques

The book suggests a few other techniques:

  • Framing (a good frame stokes curiosity). Generate a portfolio of frames.
  • Questioning (a good question is specific)
  • Subtract, remove something
  • Prompt
  • Rank the ideas from best to worst and then select the bottom six
  • Wander/wonder. Read a book about a completely unrelated subject. See a movie in the middle of the day. Tour the local museum. Walk through downtown. Feed the machine if you expect it to function
  • Make a habit of switching up your habits. 
  • Go random
  • Analogue exploration


The authors believe that ideaflow—the capacity to generate novel solutions to any given problem—is the most crucial business metric of the twenty-first century.  Thus, the leader of a team or organisation, effective innovation demands that you answer the following questions:

  • Does your team or organisation have a metric related to innovation?
  • Do you model creative behaviour yourself?
  • Do you have a business strategy that makes new ideas not only welcome but necessary?
  • Do you create space for people to work in different ways and explore ideas outside of their regular work?
  • Does participation in a failed innovation effort send someone’s career up or down?
  • Do people turn to you for the answers?

Your job as a leader is to empower them to seek the answers themselves. Unleash the approach. Frame innovation as just another muscle the company needs to operate. If you are interested in developing your change muscles, click here. Regard it as a garden where you seed new trends and opportunities being explored. See plants as new businesses actively being nurtured and trees are mature businesses. Trim trees regularly. It reminds me of “The day after tomorrow”.

My kind of book

Doing, doing creativity a lot, developing change muscles, experimenting, idea portfolio, a metric, letting 1000 flowers bloom and trusting your subconscious to give the answers. My kind of book. Combine this with “The science of serendipity”.

sensemaking cover


Sense making; morality, humanity, leadership and slow flow. A book about the 14 books about the impact and implications of technology on business and humanity.

Ron Immink

I help companies by developing an inspiring and clear future perspective, which creates better business models, higher productivity, more profit and a higher valuation. Best-selling author, speaker, writer.

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