Why Ideas Don’t Solve Problems

The goal of innovation is straightforward: to come up with solutions that address unmet customer needs. Today’s most popular approaches to innovation fall into one of two types: those that begin with a focus on solutions (or ideas) and those that begin with a focus on customer needs.

In what I call the “ideas-first” approach, companies brainstorm or otherwise come up with product or service ideas and then test them with customers to see how well the ideas address the customer’s needs. In the “needs-first” approach, companies first learn what the customer’s needs are, then discover which needs are unmet, and then devise a solution that addresses those unmet needs.

As I will explain, the “ideas-first” approach is inherently flawed and will never be the most effective approach to innovation. It will always be a guessing game that is based on hope and luck, and it will remain unpredictable. The “needs-first” approach to innovation, while not inherently flawed, is often flawed in its execution. Recognizing why it is flawed and executing it correctly is the key to success in innovation. This structural flaw in the needs-first approach is corrected in the Outcome-Driven Innovation process.   


Many companies adhere to the “ideas-first” approach and have developed support systems and organizational cultures that reinforce its use. Companies that follow this paradigm believe that the key to success in innovation is to be able to generate a large number of ideas (the more, the better) and to be able to quickly and inexpensively filter out the ideas that will likely fail. They believe this approach gives them a better chance of coming up with a greater number of breakthrough ideas.


Many academics, managers, and consultants support this thinking. Creators and supporters of many of the popular gated or “phase gate” development processes, for example, state that the first step of the development process is idea generation.

Approximately 68 percent of large businesses have adopted some form of gated development, which means that this same percentage have adopted, at least to some degree, the ideas-first mentality. [Robert Cooper, “Winning at New Products: Accelerating the Process from Idea to Launch,” 3rd ed. (Da Capo Press, 2001), 311.] Examples demonstrating the prevalence of this mind-set abound.

In their book, Innovation to the Core, Strategos CEO Peter Skarzynski and Rowan Gibson say that “successful innovation is a numbers game… the chance of finding a big, new opportunity is very much a function of how many ideas you generate, how many you pick out and test with low-cost experiments.” [Peter Skarzynski and Rowan Gibson, “Innovation to the Core” (Chicago: Strategos, 2008), 137.]

Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile states in a frequently cited article that “all innovation begins with creative ideas.” [Teresa M. Amabile, Regina Conti, Heather Coon, Jeffrey Lazenby, and Michael Herron, “Assessing the Work Environment for Creativity,” Academy of Management Journal 39, no. 5 (October 1996), 1154.]

Nearly everyone in a major corporation has participated in a brainstorming session in which, without knowing the customer’s needs, they were encouraged to generate hundreds of ideas and were told that there is no such thing as a bad idea. You can probably still picture walls of Post-It notes.

Others who support the ideas-first approach have promoted the benefits of executing the approach quickly. Many refer to this accelerated ideas-first approach as “failing fast,” the idea being that when many ideas are generated and tested quickly, the best ideas are revealed faster. Since it is accepted that an ideas-first approach is going to generate many failures, it seems logical to try and weed out the failures quickly.

This concept was touted by Tom Peters in Thriving on Chaos. Peters said companies should, “test fast, fail fast, adjust fast—pursue new business ideas on a small scale and in a way that generates quick feedback about whether an idea is viable.” [Tom Peters, Thriving on Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution (New York: Knopf/Random House, 1987), 479.]

IBM founder Thomas Watson, who years ago said, “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate,” also supported this thinking and adopted a management style that did not punish failure.

The fail-fast approach is still well supported today. For example, the authors of the recently published Innovators Guide to Growth believe that “if you fail fast and fail cheap, you have actually done your company a great service.” [Scott D. Anthony, Mark W. Johnson, Joseph V. Sinfield, and Elizabeth J. Altman, The Innovator’s Guide to Growth, Putting Disruptive Innovation to Work, (Harvard Business Press, 2008), 94.]=

As a result of this ideas-first thinking, an entire ideation industry has evolved to compete on developing ways to generate and evaluate more and more ideas, faster and faster.

Too bad it’s wrong.

Learn more >>


JOBS TO BE DONE: Theory to Practice
by Anthony Ulwick
IDEA BITE PRESS October 25, 2016