How Ideas are Just like Lego blocks

The more base-level ideas you have, the greater would be the variety and efficacy of your final creation

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What all can you do with a single Lego block? Perhaps not much. How about ten Lego blocks? May be, now you can make a few different shapes. And now let's talk about 100 Lego blocks, albite of same shape and colour. How many creations this time? Perhaps 100, or even more creations, or configurations you can have. Even more fun if you have the Lego blocks of different shapes, sizes and colours.

The same is true with ideas. The more base-level ideas you have, the greater would be the variety and efficacy of your final creation. Which is to say, quantity leads to quality, when it comes to creativity (read generation of novel and useful ideas). And yet, managers typically get this wrong. They go for quality- 'the first time right'- and always. In this article, I attempt to challenge the inclination we all have towards quality, and how it inhibits our creativity and learning.

In my numerous consulting engagements and workshops on innovation and creativity, whenever I pose this question to my management audience- what is more important, quality or quantity of ideas, they invariable vote for quality of ideas. Surprisingly, no body seem to even challenge the assumptions, and for many it seems like a trick question. I think this singular focus on quality of ideas, whether it be an ideation session or about execution alternatives does more harm than good to innovation. But before I advocate for quantity over quality, let's try spending some time understanding the roots of these biases.

"The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas" - Linus Pauling

I contend that a very strong bias towards quality stems from three organizational and personal dysfunctions. The first challenge facing a manager is that of urgent but unimportant tasks that pile up. The inability to distil out the vital from the trivial often leaves managers with limited time to deliberate or even allow others to, and as a result, they seek quick-fixes to long winding problems.

The second reason is a lack of cognitive sophistication to weed out the not-so-good ideas from the laundry list, and hence, the natural gravitation is to settle for the first impressions. For a manger sifting through 50 ideas to arrive at the top five is more painful than reading the five ideas. The mental makeup, coupled with a scientific approach to shortlist ideas are both missing in most organizations.

The third and deceptive reason for management's inclination towards quality over quantity is the survivor bias of what leads to success. Since we are all more likely to remember outcomes than the journeys, even at a personal level, we all tend to forget the failed experiments and the ideas that didn't work for every idea that did. Nobody seem to talk about all the failed inventions by Edison or unpublished work of Einstein, for our imagination is captured by the bulb and E=mc2, respectively.

The triple assault of paucity of time, lack of cognitive sophistication, and survivor bias, make us value a few good ideas over a lot of them.

This further gets intensified by the quarter to quarter pressure that managers succumb to, and that further accentuates the importance of quick solutions, few but good ones. No one seems to have time and endurance to generate a real good number of ideas, painstakingly analyse those and then chose the best fit. But the very existence of ours is on the premise of the process of quantity leading to quality.

If you are a believer in evolution (you better be), then you would understand that we were not the desired ones, but just the lucky ones. The quasi-random variation that genes of our ancestors and cousins went through, and, that too, multiples of them, led us to survive and survive more robustly. It means that the more variation would happen, the more fit would be the surviving species.

To juxtapose evolutionary theory to creativity, the more number of ideas we begin with, the better would be the resultant ideas. This resultant idea might be the best of the lot, or a combination of ordinary ideas. Which takes us back to the analogy with the Lego block.

The idea is to have more ideas and not to look for the best idea, early in the game.

So, the next time you demand creativity from your team, ask them for 50 ideas and not two good ideas. It's your task to select the best or fuse the ordinary and let them go for the volume. That might seem counterintuitive, but believe me, it works.