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Ideaflow - The Only Business Metric That Matter with Jeremy Utley

Recently on Human Capital Innovations Podcast, Jonathan Westover sat down with Director of Executive Education at Stanford University and coauthor of Idea Flow, Jeremy Utley to discuss how to generate ideas and creativity in the workplace.



Jeremy opened the conversation by discussing how so many people “... who want to be in an innovative space where they hear the rhetoric, where they hear the messaging consistently…" aren’t taught or shown by their leaders to create good ideas consistently.

One of the key points to creating good ideas often and regularly is understanding that “... if you just pause, take a few extra minutes to iterate a little bit, and come up with some alternatives…” to the first few ideas you have, “you can come up with whole new strains of thought that can potentially take you in a much better direction."


Another point that Jeremy reiterated many times is that “quantity actually drives quality.” He suggested that “The people with the most ideas have the best ideas…" because they “... don't let perfect be the enemy of good." “If we have fast iteration and we allow ourselves to have higher quantity of good stuff, eventually something remarkable, delightful will come of that." The idea is to create as many ideas to warm up the mind and begin the flow of ideas, which then leads to a variety of ideas including good, developed ones. “Good ideas come from lots of ideas.”


He also notes that “The creative mindset is one to generating options.” Once you generate options, you begin to grow and develop those options or ideas. “The whole idea behind design thinking is to iterate, right? You prototype, you iterate and you get the feedback and then you see what works and what doesn't.” That is how you drive creativity, that is how you drive idea flow, and that is how you innovate.


You can listen to the full episode at innovativehumancapital.com/podcast, or anywhere you listen to your podcasts, just search “HCI Podcast”.


View the full interview transcript below:


Welcome to the Human Capital innovations Podcast. Thanks for having me, John. Yeah, it's a pleasure to be with you. You're joining us from California. I'm Self of Salt Lake City in Utah. And today we're going to be talking about your new book, idea flow the only business metric that matters. I'm super excited to explore this with you. We live in a day in an age where we're rapidly moving into the future of work. We need to be creative. We need to foster climates and environments of creativity and innovation. And so this is really what we're going to be exploring together today. As we get started, I wanted to share Jeremy's Bio with everybody. Jeremy Utley is the Director of Executive Education at Stanford's D School and an adjunct professor at Stanford School of Engineering. He is the host of the D School's widely popular program Stanford's Masters of Creativity. And I'm sure there's tons more you could tell us about yourself and your background. I'll give you a chance to share anything else you would like to share and then we'll just dive on into the conversation. No, I think that's perfect, John. I mean, the reality is I'm a recovering MBA, spreadsheet, junkie, former management consultants who never thought in my wildest dreams I'd be talking about the virtues of creativity, but that's the path that life leads us through, and I hope we get to explore some of those wanderings along the way. But it's a privilege to be here talking about the new book that I coauthored with my partner in crime, Perry Klaibon Idea Flow. Yeah. Wonderful. Well, tell us a little bit about the idea behind Idea Flow. Like, why this book? Why now? How did it percolate and come to something you wanted? Because, I mean, writing books, it's a labor of love. It takes a lot of time and energy. Why this book by now? And then we can start to dig into the key points and ideas from it. Yeah, writing a book is not for the faint of heart. That's one thing I've learned. I would say the reason for the book. Perry and I have been running executive education at the D School for last twelve or 13 years. And one of the phenomena we've observed is that while innovation has reached this level of emphasis, that's almost a fever pitch in terms of the amount of hype that it receives. Yet for all the hype, it remains one of the most undernourished capabilities that we see in organizations. So the delta there between the words and the messaging around creativity and innovation and the practice of daily creativity, we just found that difference to be so considerable. And we have the privilege of getting to teach at Stanford. But the reality is we interact with such a small percentage of the working population, we felt, honestly, that a book was a way to make a lot of these ideas a lot more accessible to larger audiences. And folks, we don't get to teach at Stanford. Yeah, and if I could just double click on that. So you're absolutely right. There's a big, big gap. I think everyone in their dog talks about creativity and innovation. I think everyone recognizes it's important. But where the rhetoric then gets implemented and where the rubber meets the road, I just see huge, huge gaps. And I think there's good intentions there's aspirational intentions and goals that people have. But there are lots of things that organizations and leaders do, whether it's intentional or not, to actively undermine their ability to foster creativity and innovation in their teams. And so it is frustrating for people who want to be in an innovative space where they hear the rhetoric, where they hear the messaging consistently. Yet the actual daily practice, the daily lived experience, does not jive with that. I think, John, part of it comes from a failure of vocabulary, because I think words like innovation or creativity or even ideas, they're so prevalent that we can kind of take their definitions for granted. And yet, if we do so at our own peril, I would say take, for example, creativity. If a leader wants to know, how do I draw the creativity out of my team? I think a lot of leaders would love to be able to do that. Well, I would say it really depends on how you define creativity. Not to be too professorial, but definitions actually matter. And for a lot of people, if creativity is artistry, then if you're asking, how do I draw the artistry out of my team, I'd say, well, does the team possess artistry? Does the team need to be artistic? And I would be doubtful on multiple fronts. Right? But that's not what we mean by creativity. I think that's not what most leaders mean by creativity, but because they don't have a good definition, it leaves them without very practical techniques. I would say, by the way, just for those who are curious, creativity, my favorite definition comes from a 7th grader in Ohio. She said, Creativity is doing more than the first thing that comes to your mind. And I actually love that. I think it's a profound definition. We could dig into it if you want. But the one thing that I would say is it doesn't have anything to do with the domain or the function, right? Creativity is doing more than the first thing that comes to your mind is a statement without regard to artistry whatsoever. And I love that. And the truth is, if that's what it means to be creative, doing more than the first thing that comes to your mind. Well, I can be creative in an email campaign, right? Because typically, if I think of an email, I think of one subject line, I BOP it in, and then I keep going. And if I am as a leader, if I want to draw out the creativity of my team, one thing I can do bob Mckem is one of the progenitors of the Stanford design program, and he would often say, Show me three if a student asks for feedback. Well, as a manager, a really simple technique if I want to bring out the creativity on my team, is show me three. What are three subject lines that we could use? For most people, a simple question like that is a revelation, because they realize I've never generated alternatives, right? But there's no evidence that suggests that the first idea that comes to mind is the best. And yet that's often what we end up going with, right? By default. We're so busy and we're just trying to churn through stuff, right? And so I think often times, far too often, we just go with that first idea that jumps into our head, and it's decent, it's passable, and so we just run with it. And if you just pause, take a few extra minutes to iterate a little bit, and come up with some alternatives, actually, you can come up with whole new strains of thought that can potentially take you in a much better direction, if not at least changing things up a little bit. Like in your example of an email campaign, just something that's a little bit different might catch people's eye a little bit differently, whatever. A few extra minutes can take you a long way. But that's hard when people feel suppressed for time, when they feel like they have to turn stuff out so quickly. Well, I think it gets down to mindset. John, one of the big emphasis of the book is that innovation is not an event. If you ask, When's the last time you innovated, a lot of people will look to the hackathon or the sprint or the workshop. I innovated when we did that hackathon, as if the rest of my work has no bearing on creativity or innovation or anything like that. That's how a lot of people think. And what we'd say is innovation is a capacity that can be nurtured. And back to your point about just taking an extra minute. This is how we are with other capacities that we want to nurture. My sister I love this silly example. My sister plays volleyball, or she did when she was a high school athlete. And if we went to the grocery store, and my mom said, hey, Rachel, would you grab a jug of milk from the fridge? You know what she'd do when she grabbed a jug of milk, right? She goes to the fridge, she grabs the milk, and then she does curls on the way back to the cart. Right? Why? Because to an athlete, every gallon of milk is a dumbbell. Right? That's the athletic mindset, right? I don't have to say, hey, Rachel, where's your coach? You're not wearing your knee pads, right? She look at me like I'm crazy, right? Because to an athlete, it's not about, am I on the field? Is my coach here? Does someone have a whistle? I want to get stronger. Right? Well, to someone with an innovative mindset or a creative capacity, just like every gallon of milks, a dumbbell. To the athlete, every problem, every question that there's not a ready made answer for is an opportunity for a few curls. Why not try three? Astro Teller, the head of Google X, says he always asks his team for five. I want five ideas, right? And I asked him why. He said, well, because I know that good ideas come from lots of ideas. I said, So how does that work in your team? He said, well, people try to game the system. They bring the good idea, and they bring what they think of as four dummy ideas. They're going to stand back. But he said, the challenge is, half the time one of their dummy ideas is every bit as good as a good idea. Right. But you only get it if you just have that instinct. Just like the athletic mindset, there's a creative mindset. And the creative mindset isn't merely one towards artistic expression, very simply. It's one to generating options. And if you think in terms of generating options, and as a leader, if you create space for generating options, granted, just like curling the gallon of milk took a little bit of extra work on the way back to the shopping cart, you start to realize that's the point. The little bit of extra work is the thing I'm trying to exercise when I treat innovation like a capacity that has to be nurtured rather than an event on my calendar. Yeah. And I really like the more inclusive definition that you're using. Beyond kind of the traditional artistic, the performative those types of things that people often first think about when they think about innovation or they think about creativity, it does need to be more inclusive than that. And as you were mentioning, give me three, give me five. Whatever it is, just nudging people towards that mindset of just coming up with more options, I think is really fantastic. And, of course, if there's not a ready answer absolutely. But even when there's a ready answer, even when there's a pattern and you followed it and it's worked for you in the past, occasionally, I mean, not all the time because we don't have time to try to disrupt everything all the time. But occasionally take a step back and look at those things with even the ready answers, the things that you've been doing, consistently challenge some assumptions, maybe come up with some alternative options and then who knows, you might come up with the next great thing. That's right. You never know the next idea that might come to mind. I mean, I did this last night. Actually the thing that I find important is to not be a hypocrite. And so I find unless I'm doing the things I tell other people to do, at the very least I'm a hypocrite. But at the most I'm just spewing some ideas that have no basis in reality in my life. And so I've taken now for years this mantra if I'm going to tell somebody to do it, I have to do it. And if I'm not willing to do it then I have to stop telling someone to do it. That's actually revolutionized my own life. I mean, even as far as things like napping, I am a I hate napping. But then I start to see the benefits, the cognitive benefits of napping. I start talking about it. How Edison and Salvador, Dot Lee and Frank Lloyd Wright all these interesting people nap. And then I realized one day I don't nap. And then I'm left with this tension. Do I give up that stream of very interesting kind of tactics and history or do I submit myself to it and see if it works? And it works. The reason I mention that is I find it's very useful to do the stuff. I'm talking about myself. As they say. I'm not only the president of Mental Club, I'm also a member. I'm not only the president of Idea Club. And just last night we had a situation at home. I've got four daughters and there was an accident that involved a shattering of a window. Okay? And I'm going, how do I respond to this? For whatever reason my hospital didn't give me a handbook when the children arrived. So I've been left to do it on my own. Mostly I'm kidding with my amazing wife. But the question of how do we respond to this came up and the instinct is to try to think of the right answer. And it's a lot of like no, no, it's just like faltering starting and stopping herky jerky kind of simultaneous generation and evaluation that accompanies most of the efforts that we make to try to solve a problem. But I said, you know what? I said to my wife? Let's do an idea quota which is a technique that we describe in the book. Just come up with ten answers. Right? No kidding. John the 10th answer was really cool and it was something that I never would have thought of had I not pushed myself to volume. So the point being just like you're saying. We might even think we know the answer. But by pushing ourselves to imagine alternative possibilities, at the very least we're flexing that muscle, which is critical, yes, but at the most, we actually discover something we never would have discovered. That's even more. That's even better. It's almost like it's a learning module in our house. I mean, I won't give any of it away before my daughters get to experience it. They're going to experience a learning module today that they never would have had. Mommy and Daddy not done an idea quota on the present problem of how do we respond to this broken window? Yeah, I love that example. And I have four teenage daughters myself and then a couple of young boys. And so I get it an adventure always, each and every day. So I'm curious and I'll ping you later on to see how this all goes. The jury still out, by the way. This may not be a good idea ultimately, but the point is I'm more excited about it than the early ideas. Yeah. And you're trying something new and the whole idea behind design thinking is to iterate, right? You prototype, you iterate and you get the feedback and then you see what works and what doesn't. It everything is an experiment. And so when I think about creativity and innovation, I just like to think in terms of options, think in terms of experiments, micro experiments, and iterate rapidly so that you get the feedback and you can come to better ultimate direction. And it's the scientific method. Right? I'm a professor, you're at the university as well. This is what we talk about all the time. On the one hand, we use some really cool fun jargon. We use the types of buzzwords because they do matter and they can drive success for teams and for organizations. But it all boils down to the scientific method. We're just simply trying to make sure that we're pushing knowledge forward and we're doing a rapid iteration kind of an approach. Well, let's talk we've already pulled out some of the ideas here, but let's talk about some more of those principles that you're exploring in idea flow sure. That you think would be most helpful to listeners in our last ten minutes. Well, so one of the core principles is this notion that quantity actually drives quality. Anywhere I go in the world, if somebody says, hey, what do you do for a living? What are you going to do here? We're in Tokyo or Tel Aviv or Topeka. Wherever it is. Right. What are we going to do? I say, I'm going to help you come up with ideas. And I get despite the radical cultural differences of those three places, japan, Israel and Kansas, yet there is shocking consistency in response to what I see I do. I see I help you come up with ideas. You know what people say all over the world. They say, how do you come up with a good idea? I say, Wait, who said anything about good? I didn't say I would help you come up with good ideas. Right. But what you identify as you go over the world is when the very notion of idea is inseparable from quality measurement, right. We only care about good ideas, and when we're looking for ideas, we're looking for good ideas. Right. The problem is that's actually not how good ideas are formed. If you look at the research, there's overwhelming research. Dr. Dean Keith Simonson has done a longitudinal studies across disciplines from the arts to the sciences, to engineering, to discovery. And what he's found is that the single greatest variable that determines the quality of your ideas is actually the quantity of your ideas. And as an example, Jerry Yulsman was a professor of photography at the University of Florida, fellow professor with us. And he basically divided his classroom in half. One day he said, okay, end of the semester, we're going to have a different grading criteria for each half of the class. What we're going to do is I'm going to bring in some amazing photographers at the end of the semester. Half of you guys, you guys on the right hand side here, half of you. Your grading criteria is you have to turn in an exceptional photo to get an A if you want an A. And everybody wants an A. And by the way, this is a metaphor for life. We all want an A. And whatever it is we're doing, whether it's photography or subject lines or expense reimbursements or HR policies or new product development, we want to get an A. Wellsman found this group to get an A, you've got to produce a spectacular photo. And the jury is going to evaluate your one greatest photo. So you only have to submit one. But it's got to be truly remarkable to get an A. Anything less than truly remarkable, it's not going to get an A. To the other half of the class. On the left hand side, you said, okay, folks, your criteria is a little bit different. The jury is not going to look at the quality of your photo. What they're going to do is they're going to count how many photos you submit at the end of the semester. And if you submit over 100 photos, it doesn't matter how bad they are, you're going to get an A in the class. Okay, so end of the semester rolls around, and Yulesmen and the jurors were shocked to discover two things. One, the righthand side of the class. The class was told they had to submit a spectacular photo. Nobody got an A. The group of people whose job was to produce a caliber work couldn't do it, focusing on the quality of their work. The second surprise, though, was that the left hand side of the class, the quantityoriented side of the class, got a lot of as in terms of quantity, but many of them also got as in terms of quality, meaning the folks who were generating an enormous volume of photos as a virtue of that quantity orientation, actually delivered higher quality photos. And that makes sense. We go, okay, that makes sense in the arts. But again, Simonson's study says the same holds true in the sciences and in engineering. The people with the most ideas have the best ideas. So when you say, oh, how do I get a good idea? I'd say, change your orientation. Instead of thinking about how do I have a good idea? How do I have a lot of ideas? Is a better question. And if you want to really push yourself to have a lot of ideas, then ask yourself a followup, which is, how do I have a lot of bad ideas? And you might go, wait, bad ideas? I'd say absolutely. You think about somebody like Steve Jobs. Nobody thinks that guy is an idiot. You may think what you will about his management style, et cetera, that's fine. Nobody thinks he's an idiot when it comes to innovation. He clearly delivered disruptive new products. He redefined categories, customer delight, et cetera. And yet Sir Johnny Ive, at his memorial service for Steve Jobs, you know what he said? He said, every day Steve and I would have lunch, and every day Steve would lean across table and say, hey Johnny, want to hear a dopey idea? And Sir Johnny, I've said, most of the time they were pretty dopey. In fact, sometimes they were truly terrible. But every once in a while they take the air out of the room and leave us breathless and wonder, right, as only Sir Johnny Ive can say. But the point is, Steve Jobs knew what we don't, which is the way to get to delight is to be dopey, is to allow yourself to be dopey, because volume is a huge variable there and so is variation. And when we disallow ourselves to think of dopey ideas, we also prevent ourselves from thinking of delightful ideas because they're a function of variation. You could say that dopey is the price of delight it takes to get there. And so if you say, I want good ideas, two kind of points of reorientation. Instead of looking for good, go for lots. And to get to lots, push for bad. And that's really unexpected paradigm shift for many people. But to us, this whole notion of idea flow is predicated on the belief that a lot of ideas matter. And there's a process in a system for generating lots of ideas. There's all sorts of stuff that we can do with those ideas once we generate them. But the first thing is more have more material to work with. And the old saying, don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good, right? If we're so focused on making sure that we have that high quality item, whatever it is, in our work process and our policies, our procedures and our communications and whatever, then we become paralyzed. We can't make decisions, we can't move forward, and we get stuck on that one thing that we're trying to make perfect. And of course, when we're bringing a product to the market, we don't want a crappy product. But we also, if we have fast iteration and we allow ourselves to have higher quantity of good stuff, eventually something remarkable, delightful will come of that. But we can get stuck. We can get trapped behind this idea of we need to come up with the answer, with the perfect response or whatever, and then we just become paralyzed and we can't move forward. One thing I might recommend to folks who are wrestling with this notion is think about Jerry Seinfeld, world class, world renowned breakthrough. Thinker in his own right, in his own sphere. Everybody thinks of the Letterman show where he does 15 minutes of just mountaintop to mountain top, perfect delivery to perfect delivery. And we go, well, he's an alien. He's, like, totally different than us. There's no way I could do that. But what you don't know if you don't study him, right? But what you do know if you do study him is, how does Jerry Seinfeld get to 15 perfect minutes? He's going into clubs for a year ahead of time, bombing night after night after night, taking copious notes, refining, bombing, refining, bombing, refining. And he's figuring out what works. There's a fascinating documentary if you have a watch you should watch, called The Comedian, and it catalogues his return to stand up after Seinfeld the sitcom. And there's this one amazing moment where he's you know, he's flailing on stage, it's not going well, and this woman is heckling him from the side. She goes, hey, buddy, is this your first time? The guy's world famous, right? But there's 200 people in the audience and he's bombing. And Seinfeld says to me so beautifully, he says, this is how comedians develop new material. And as you can tell, it's quite painful. And to me, what's amazing is you string together 300 nights of 200 people thinking he's an idiot. What is that, 60,000 people? 60,000 people think Seinfeld's an idiot, approximately, right? That's what it takes to get two or 20 million people watching him on Letterman thinking he's a genius. And the question is, if you want to get to the Letterman caliber outcome in whatever you're doing, where is your nightclub? Where is your process in a small, contained setting to share the dopey ideas that enable you? That process is what enables you to get to the light. Nobody signs up for Letterman a year from now and goes, can't wait till the perfect 15 minutes come to mind for me. Nobody does, right? But if you look in most organizations, if they say, a year from now, we need Letterman quality Letterman caliber output. And you ask them what the process is to get there, they're waiting for the Letterman caliber script to fall in their laps. And let's not forget that Seinfeld, I believe, is the first comedian to reach billionaire status. So he's had truly remarkable success by kind of all metrics, all standards. Jeremy, this has just been super fun. I know at the time I need to let you go on with your busy day here in just a minute, but this has been great and I really encourage listeners to reach out, get connected, and check out the book Idea Flow, the only business metric that matters. As we close up. I just wanted to give you a moment to share with audience how they can connect with you and then give us a final word on the topic for today. Absolutely. So the best place to reach me probably Twitter. I'm on Twitter or LinkedIn. I've got a website. I blog every single day about these topics, jeremy at Lee Dot Design. And then we've got a book website in promotion of the book Ideaflow Design. And we've got a free chapter actually on the website right now called how to Think Like Bezos and Jobs. And maybe just in conclusion, to tie it to that, a lot of folks wonder what makes breakthrough thinkers different? Do they have different genetics, different DNA? And what I would say kind of tongue in cheek is what makes breakthrough thinkers different is how they think. And you can learn to think in a breakthrough manner, right? And that's the hope with idea flow. That's the hope of all this stuff that I'm doing and putting out in the world is to practically equip folks to think in a more breakthrough manner. And so check out the websites, Jeremy, design or Ideaflow Design, and feel free to reach out. I answer all my own email and LinkedIn messages and things like that and I look forward to hearing from folks. Thanks for having me. Thank you, Jeremy. Again, it's been a pleasure. I encourage my audience to reach out and get connected, check out the book, and as always, I hope everyone can stay healthy and safe, that you can find meaning and purpose at work each and every day, and I hope you all have a great week.

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