Where Do Great Ideas Come From?

If you only have a few minutes to spare, here’s what investors, operators, and founders should know about finding great ideas.

  • Tolerating failure. To foster a creative environment, you must make yourself comfortable with failure. A 2009 study demonstrates the impact of incentivizing experimentation among life scientists. When funded by a more permissive, long-term-minded grant, scientists achieved breakthrough innovations at much higher rates than peers receiving stricter grants.
  • The beginner’s mind. We are told that having a “beginner’s mind” can be a gift when analyzing a problem. The novice can often find solutions to which the expert is blind. A 2014 paper suggests that’s more than just rhetoric. When prompted to develop novel ideas, the study found that those with the leastoverlapping expertise were most ingenious.
  • Structural holes. Where within an organization do the best ideas come from? Ronald Burt’s 2004 work offers an answer. Those that position themselves near “structural holes,” gaps in an organization’s network, tend to be especially creative. By connecting disparate groups, these “brokers” become sources of ingenuity.
  • Motivating innovation. If you want an innovative R&D team, hire the intrinsically motivated. An analysis of 11,000 research scientists found a connection between creative output and the reasons individuals chose their current role. Those that optimized for salary or job security were less innovative than scientists motivated by independence or the desire for an intellectual challenge.

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