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W2C - Thinking Differently: How to Spot a Good Idea

May 11, 2022 by Lauren Gombas

At a time when wearing a blood-stained physician uniform was a badge of honor, Ignaz Semmelweis challenged the status quo. He suggested physicians wash their hands to reduce birth fatalities. His community openly rejected his ideas, yet he insisted on adding a handwashing requirement to his practice and continued to discuss it openly.

In other words, Semmelweis dared to think differently. It wasn't until after his death that handwashing became a standard practice. Had Germ Theory not come along to support his idea, countless more lives would have perished. In any industry, deciding not to pursue an idea comes at a cost. Polaroid, for example, lost its title as an industry leader after it failed to embrace digital imagery more fully. Both Semmelweis and Polaroid serve as examples of why good ideas need to be identified and adopted.

W2C Thinking Differently: How to Spot a Good Idea

The Ingredients of a Great Idea

Before spotting a great idea, one must first identify its three ingredients. Thinking differently serves as the first ingredient, as it asks new questions, seeks new answers, and breaks away from a traditional route. As Einstein famously put it, the same level of thinking that created a problem can’t solve it. Thinking differently, therefore requires new experiences to sort through both well-established and unconventional information. Connecting the dots and paradigm shifts are the second and third ingredients. 

Connecting the Dots

In 'The Innovator's DNA,' Harvard Business Review points out how the brain doesn't work like a dictionary. Instead, the human brain works using free association. It goes between logical connections, such as associating the word financial with the bank Wells Fargo, or emotional ones, such as connecting the word financial with stress or anxiety. So it makes sense that thinking differently, which requires pulling from a range of experiences, makes it more likely that someone will come up with a great idea. 

For example, Semmelweis didn't have enough information to back his claim. Yet, his idea came from his observations and his commitment to isolate and test out potential reasons for fatalities. His idea was great because it connected the dots between a need and a possible solution. 

Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, also looked at needs and sought a solution. Omidyar had a personal interest in improving the efficacy of markets, which helped him keep an ear out for other exciting ideas. His fiancée then sparked his interest in hard-to-find collectibles, and he quickly found that the well-established system for finding these collectibles wasn't efficient. Omidyar created one of the most used online marketplaces by combining these needs and ideas.

Paradigm Shifts

"Propulsion theory" measures paradigm shifts and creative output by how much they move life away from the current way of thinking. Germ Theory is an example of a paradigm shift. It paved the way for cleanliness, but it also actively moved the medical industry toward preventing diseases before they occur. 

Similarly, around twelve thousand years ago, the move from a hunter and gatherer lifestyle to an agricultural way of life was one of the most significant paradigm shifts in human history. Pursuing agriculture created a need for permanent settlements, which later evolved into more extensive forms of society. The opportunity to stay in one place and band together led to the human population's expansive growth from about five million to seven billion people today.

Why Good Ideas Don't Initially Seem Like Good Ideas

It might be a surprise that great ideas often get discredited. Whether because we ourselves do not believe it’s a great idea, society pushes back on it like the medical community did with Semmelweis, or because another person didn’t think of it for themselves. After all, who doesn't want to say that they've spotted a great idea first? Like knowing the ingredients of a good idea, it's essential to understand what factors interfere with how great ideas are perceived.

Gate Keepers & Rejection

Before it expanded into Ring, Doorbot, a doorbell video security system, made its appearance on Shark Tank. Shark Tank is a show on which entrepreneurs present their ideas, hoping that famous investors will provide them with resources. Doorbot Inventor Jamie Siminoff received only one offer, and he deemed it too low to accept. Five years later, Siminoff sold Doorbot to Amazon for an estimated one billion dollars. Although the investors had reasons not to offer Siminoff more, such as Doorbot's high number of competitors, it's also true that gatekeepers might miss rising ideas.

This circumstance can also be true for many scientific ideas like those of Giordano Bruno, who accurately predicted scientific discoveries ahead of his time. Among some of his ideas were an infinite universe and the suggestion of a plurality of worlds. At a time when religious and scientific gatekeepers held both cultural and political power, it was dangerous for Bruno to contradict the well-established theories. Although many scientists today might not face the same level of opposition and persecution, as Wired to Create points out, the peer review system may be set up to reinforce currently accepted scientific theories rather than take a chance on something that seems more radical. 

Mitigating Risks & Understanding Conformity 

Humans are risk-averse, so in an attempt to reduce uncertainty, a creativity bias is constantly active on individual and institutional levels. Despite this, organizations still list creativity as a core value. A study called 'Creativity: Asset or Burden in the Classroom?' set out to understand how teachers perceived creativity. While teachers said they like creative students, they also said they disliked personality traits that foster creative thinking. Instead, the teachers used words such as 'well-behaved' and 'conforming' to describe the type of student they prefer. Teachers' preference may stem from a desire to mitigate risk, as creative thinking challenges the status quo and authority, in this case, the teachers. 

In another similar study in Wired to Create, participants were asked to guess line length. The first round of participants was asked to take a guess after hearing a group of people give grossly inaccurate estimates. Researchers then prompted a control group to speculate without first hearing someone else take a guess. Only twenty-five percent of participants in the non-control group guessed correctly. In contrast, 95 percent of the control group presented correct answers. 

What this goes to show is that we are hard-wired to mitigate social isolation. It comes as no surprise that we are told to conform to receive acceptance as children. Society teaches us that taking a chance on something new isn't worth it if it means being apart from the group.

Articulating an Idea

According to journalist Malcolm Gladwell, the trouble with geniuses is that IQ alone is not enough to determine success. Practical IQ is also needed to persuade another person or groups of people. Expressing ideas, collaborating with others, advocating for ourselves, and making our views heard are all critical aspects of Practical IQ. So, if the person carrying the concept doesn't have this skill, their idea may never make it.

Steve Jobs is someone who knew how to articulate his ideas and make himself heard. One example was Jobs’ ability to reframe how consumers could view the tablet. Before its release in 2010, Apple’s iPad was ridiculed. Wired went as far as to mock it by saying it was essentially a bigger iPhone. In part the ridicule came from the tablets' extensive history, which included multiple failed attempts by various companies.

Job distinguished the iPad as a third category item, which he claimed could outperform laptops and iPhones in various categories. He was able to plant the seed in the consumer's mind that this third device could do better in emailing, taking photos, browsing, and more. Apple sold 300,000 iPads on the first day it was available and sold over two million less than two months later. 

How to Spot Good Ideas

When looking for good ideas, consider the ingredients and obstacles listed in the above sections. Does this idea come out of thinking differently and the unique experiences thinking differently sometimes requires? 

Below are a few other tips for spotting great ideas despite common barriers. 

  • Look to outsiders for innovation. Instead of going to a large well-known book store, try going to a smaller, less known one. If a friend who has failed to publish a book wants to share an idea, don't automatically dismiss it. His next idea may be his best.
  • Acknowledge your fear around taking risks. Once identified, it's easier to see which areas we can be more creative. What’s risky to you? Perhaps it’s sharing a piece of art you’ve created or investing in a friend’s business idea. Both have major potential risks and major potential payoffs. Acknowledge your fear and develop a plan for managing and moving away from that fear. 
  • Realize that it’s okay to be part of a group, and it’s okay to stand out too. Question if an idea is being rejected because it’s outside of what’s expected. Is there something about the idea that reads true? 
  • Understand that a good idea can sometimes be hard to articulate well. Not everyone will have the same gift for public speaking as Steve Jobs. If an idea seems unusual or doesn’t make sense, ask yourself if this is because of its presentation. Ask for clarification or try re-working the concept yourself. 

As life moves forward, don't worry about missing great ideas. The wonderful thing is great ideas can come at any time from any source. By continuing to follow the desire to think differently anyone can open themselves up to seeing and adopting great ideas sooner than later.

Questions to consider:

What are some great ideas that could have been acknowledged earlier? 

What are some additional barriers to great ideas?

How else can thinking differently be applied to daily living? 

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