Bob Eckert : How to Build a Better Idea Trap

Creating Growth Through Innovation

How to Build a Better Idea Trap

Divergence, convergence, and guidelines for generating and evaluating new ideas.

Excerpted from, More Lightning, Less Thunder: Energizing Innovative Teams by Bob Eckert and Jonathan Vehar | Updated 4/16/16

You sit down at your desk, turn on your computer, open the word processing software, and wait for the ideas to come to you. And then… nothing.

What happened to all those great ideas that were streaming and percolating through your head while you were drifting off to sleep? Where did those concepts go that were popping like corn while you were in the shower? What happened to that million-dollar thought while you were driving to work? Gone. Back into the ether. Ever to be found again? Who knows?

If you survey gajillions of people about where they are when they get their best ideas (and we have), you rapidly discover that a huuuuuge percentage of people don't get their best ideas in the office: rather in bed, in the shower, in the car, during exercise, on a walk, on the water, in the woods, in a mall, in a house, with a mouse, in a box, with a fox, up a tree. Now let me be! *

So the trick is to make sure those ideas don't escape. They're valuable ideas that come to you for free when you least expect it. But if you're prepared, you can capture the little scamps and use them later.

So carry with you a notebook. Capture them in your PDA. Use your pocket tape recorder. Write them on scraps of paper. Keep your laptop computer booted and ready. And trap the ideas. Write them down. And be deliberate about saving, filing, or reviewing them on a regular basis.

Your ideas are your responsibility. So keep track of them like you would your cash. After all, ideas are gold. Treat them that way.

Divergence and Convergence

Our brain has two basic phases during the innovation process. 1) generating ideas and 2) evaluating ideas. Most of the time, when we're innovating, we're doing both parts at the same time. First one then the other, immediately. You know the conversation. Here's what it looks like when thinking about where to go for dinner.

Generating: We could go for Chinese food?
Evaluation: Nah, too much MSG.
Generating: How about Italian?
Evaluating: No, that will fill me up.
Generating: Perhaps the diner?
Evaluating: Not today, I'd like to avoid grease.
Generating: Well, then, maybe the burger place?
Evaluating: Nope, I had lunch there.

And so it goes. What happens to the generative side of the process is that it gets fed up with being rejected all the time. And that's just in our own brain. Imagine when we add the entire team to the equation! Lots of ideas, lots of people shutting them down, and then eventually the group stops suggesting ideas and innovative thoughts.

One way to eliminate the idea shut down is to deliberately separate our generating from our evaluating. Otherwise, it's like trying to drive with one foot on the accelerator while the other foot is on the brake. You'll make a lot of noise, but you won't go anywhere. And according to Mr. Goodwrench, it's tough on the car.

It's easier said than done, so use these deliberate rules when you're generating and evaluating:


With thanks to Alex Osborn, from his book, Applied Imagination.

Defer Judgment — you can judge the ideas all you want… LATER! For now, just keep them coming and write them down!

Strive for Quantity — set a quota for ideas and don't stop until you get there. Even then, don't feel the need to stop generating! For simple issues, go for at least 30 ideas. More for complicated problems. When you generate lots of ideas, you'll get lots of great ideas. Quantity yields quality. Of course, you'll get lots of bad ideas, too, but don't worry about them until you start judging. But not yet!

Seek Wild and Unusual Ideas — Seek out wacky ideas. Actively try to find them. Because they stretch your mind. They force you to look in new corners of your brain where you'll find some odd ideas that might not be so outrageous when you tone them down a bit. It's easier to tame a wild idea than to invigorate a weak one.

Combine and Build on Other Ideas — It's not enough to just generate a bunch of ideas unless you can build on them or fit ideas together that offer new possibilities. As you're generating, keep playing with ideas to see if you can let ideas spark off of each other to create new ones.


Use Affirmative Judgment — Instead of pointing out all the ideas in which you don't see merit ("I hate that idea, and that idea, and that one, and that one, and that one. That one really sucks…"), focus on the ides that are potentially valuable. Look for the good. Don't point out the bad. Never mind the ugly.

Be Brave: Consider Novelty — When evaluating ideas, it's too easy to fall back on the safe ideas you've tried before or that you know have been done before. But as we discuss elsewhere in this book, innovation doesn't come from golden oldies ideas. They come from bold, fresh, new, novel ideas. And that's sometimes uncomfortable. So focus on looking for them.

Stay on Target — As you evaluate ideas, remember what you're trying to accomplish. What was the original objective? Keep that in mind when you're reviewing ideas. Otherwise, it's easy to go off on tangents without getting what you want. Like the saying goes, "when you're up to your butt in alligators, sometimes it's easy to forget that you started out to drain the swamp."

Keep Focused — It's easy to see one idea and latch onto it, excluding all of the other great ideas that you generated. Watch out! Force yourself to be patient enough to explore each and every idea and ponder it's strengths before moving on to evaluate the next idea.

If you can't remember all that, remember this; to generate new ideas, you have to be able to defer judgment and open your mind to new ideas. And to evaluate new ideas, you have to open your mind to new ideas. Otherwise nothing gets through but old ideas. Now, how innovative is that?! •

Next: Nobody's Perfect… or Surrender to Your Humanity

* With apologies to Dr. Seuss

©2006 Bob Eckert. All rights reserved.

Bob EckertBob Eckert is a Senior Founding Partner at New & Improved, LLC. His work focuses on developing innovative organizations and innovation leaders via training, coaching and facilitation. More »
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