Where do good ideas come from? (1)

“Ideas come from need; understanding of need comes from experience; and experience comes with age. The world may not yet be ready for your idea, but if you believe in it, keep pursuing it until one day the world is ready. It is never too late for you to innovate.” – “No, You Are Not Too Old to Innovate” by Vivek Wadhwa.

“What if past experience isn’t your best friend? What if it’s your worst enemy, because it’s no longer predictive of anything, and because it’s an impediment to the disruptive change and innovation that we need? – “When Experience Betrays You” by Howard A. Tullman.


I am writing this article to discuss where good ideas come from and whether our experiences matter in that context. In parallel I’m also listening to “The Mind of The Innovator,” a special program on NPR, the American National Public Radio, which is sponsored by NSF, the National Science Foundation. This radio program is addressing what it takes to innovate and outlines the following concepts:

  • problem solving based on the ability to connect dots and to create mental roadmaps
  • playfulness and rapid prototyping to scout for options and to seek early and continuous feedback
  • thinking of real world applications and how to bring them to market… coupled with fear of failure

Speaking of failure, the business of innovating is not for the faint of heart. One’s convictions and mental toughness become instrumental when undertaking the journey between initial research and commercial adoption:

  1. Some startups fail to make that transition, which is also known as the “valley of death” for emerging technologies.
  2. Some other succeed among early adopters, but do not get subsequent traction with a wider market; this case is known as failing to “cross the chasm.”
  3. There are “zombie startups” with enough capital to run operations, which are not growing enough to take the business to the next level.
  4. Fast followers” and even “incumbents” can take advantage of a start-up’s market creation investments and effectively compete in no time.
  5. In-house “corporate antibodies” characterized by unwillingness to take needed risks can slow down and put innovations on hold.
  6. NIH rejection, “Not Invented Here” syndrome, severely limits partnering and outsourcing opportunities as well as integrating existing third party products to speed up overall R&D.
  7. Knockoff” products, “rip-offs,” “start-up clones” and any other “copycat” companies can cause considerable havoc. 
  8. Last but not least, “patent trolls” involve firms engaging in what amounts to frivolous but time and resource consuming litigation.

So, it would seem that the generation of brilliant ideas alone does not seem to be good enough to succeed. Does experience make a difference? I think that the answer is that our personal experiences and lack of thereof matter in both expected and unexpected ways. In today’s fast changing environment, experience will make all the difference many times, but what some perceive as stubborn and restless behaviors can also pay off in quite a few other situations. What makes us smart is to be able to sense what formula applies best under a given context and changing gears accordingly, which is easier said than done when things are in motion.

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In any case, I like to quote Seneca, a Roman philosopher who stated that “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” No doubt, unexpected successes based accidental innovations happen, but the entrepreneurial spirit relies on believing in one’s chances because we should be empowered to make our own luck and own our own destiny no matter what challenges and odds we face. This has to do with self-fulfilling prophecies and plenty of positive thinking psychology if you will. Yet, thinking otherwise negates the kind of risk taking and passionate disdain for conformity which most innovations depend on.

Failure happens. We embrace “trial and error” as well as “learning and recovering” to come out stronger at the other end. In that context, stress is what surfaces at the the opposite end. Just like in life* we are often first put to the test and then learn a valuable lesson, that’s what we call teachable moments. Our experiences become memories, actionable knowledge and instincts that make us who we are. Nonetheless, we might blissfully ignore many things, which coupled with our learning ability, relationships, as well as the environment we operate also contribute to define our own self. Entrepreneurial success comes with what would appear to be intractable contradictions to many, here are some examples:

  • an open mindset and a broad world view will definitely help (ability to zoom out) coupled with focus and mental toughness, which also are of the essence (ability to zoom in)
  • determination and discipline helps us thrive, but sensing when to press on opposed to when to shift course and speed also are critical success factors (agility)
  • uniqueness and differentiation define market value while adherence to partnerships and alliances can help us get there before others do.
  • every one of us can make a difference (individualism) though it takes working with others and teamwork to make things happen (cohesiveness)
  • a can do attitude and positivity are required, however we also need to exercise decisiveness and the power of saying no.

I am sure that better terms and examples can be found. In the meantime, I hope that the above helps convey the underlying message. Besides, this is not so much about aiming for normalcy, meeting in the middle, striking a balance or working with averages, all of which can defeat the purpose if applied indiscriminately. It has more to do with juggling balls on a roller coaster ride and embracing the art of the possible.

In my next article I will share a list of about 50 practices and concepts leveraged in ideation, this being the discovery and generation process for new ideas. Though I need to do some more work to provide you with a taxonomy to work with.


* ”The difference between school and life? In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.” – Attributed to Tom Bodett.

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