What is an idea? What isn't?

'When corporate innovation goes bad', 'Biggest business fails'... We've all seen the listicles. What were they thinking?

I got an insight into what they were thinking, while playing a business game as part of my MBA programme a few years ago. Some of the answer may seem obvious - like a focus on business needs rather than customer needs. But another part of the answer surprised me - the other members of my team (all very smart and accomplished) could not distinguish between an idea and a... thing that was not an idea.

What does that even mean?

Good question, let me elaborate. In the game, we were tasked with developing an innovative project that would increase revenues for a large multi-national brewing company. A broad brief, with a lot of potential routes: new product? new process? new market? new business model? All possibilities that were explored by the various teams.

Several teams, including mine, converged on a problem - people are simply drinking and going to pubs less. How can you expand your revenue in a shrinking market? (Note, this is a problem for the business, not a problem for the consumers/non-consumers.)

The flipchart

We discussed the different aspects of the problem, and at some point a marker and flipchart appeared. Concepts were floated. Notes were made. Two options were on the flipchart:


One of these things is not like the other

What was painfully apparent to me - but not to my colleagues - is that one of these things is an idea and the other... isn't. It's a a group of descriptors, possibly a market, maybe even a brief... But it's not an idea. It's a layer of adjectives fluffing out a core of nothing.

A long, frustrating discussion ensued. My colleagues insisted there was an idea in the not-idea, even as they repeatedly failed to articulate what it was. Eventually, a decision was needed - what was our innovative project going to be? The vote was 5-1 in favour of the not-idea. One of my colleagues explained his thought process:

I have a corporate background, and I'd be uncomfortable putting [the idea] in front of my boss. It's too different from what we're already doing, it's a risk. The [not-idea] looks less risky and more likely to get approval from my boss, so I'd choose to put this forward.

The decorative dressing of descriptions and adjectives had disguised the emptiness at the heart of the not-idea. The identification of target markets and articulation of business needs blinded him to the fact there was no product and no customer value.

Corporate minds think alike

And of course, he believes his boss will approve it. The other four team members are already on board, so this project is going ahead. Even though no one in the group can describe what they are making.

At some point, this void will have to be filled. Time and money will have been spent, the project must succeed! The story around the not-idea will be highly developed, bolstered by market data, financial projections and talk about brand-building. At that point, any terrible idea can take up residence, a cuckoo concept in the carefully feathered corporate nest.

This isn't a risky project, it's an outright waste.