The Biggest Mistake You’re Making When Generating Ideas


Originally published July 31, 2018 on

When you hear the word “innovation,” you probably picture thought leaders like Elon Musk (Tesla), Steve Jobs (Apple), or Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook, the “Lean In” movement). You also likely think about the ability to generate big, bold, brilliant ideas — not just once, but as a regular practice. You may also be comparing yourself to your colleagues who seem to be able to think on their feet, pull novel approaches out of thin air, and even invent solutions to problems that people don’t even know they have yet. You also may think that either you just are or you aren’t innovative.

And you may be feeling disappointed.

That makes sense, if you’re committed to a limited, outdated perspective of innovation that’s just about generating new ideas. But here are some other perspectives to consider:

“For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate.” Author, CEO, and entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan

“Success doesn’t necessarily come from breakthrough innovation but from flawless execution.” Naveen K. Jain, founder and former CEO of InfoSpace

“Software innovation, like almost every other kind of innovation, requires the ability to collaborate and share ideas with other people, and to sit down and talk with customers and get their feedback and understand their needs.” Bill Gates

“Innovation comes from saying NO to 1,000 things.” Steve Jobs

Notice a theme? None of these business leaders’ definitions of innovation is focused solely on coming up with the next big thing. For Heffernan, innovation is about engaging in productive conflict. For Jain, innovation is about executing on ideas. For Gates, innovation is about seeking feedback, really listening and understanding needs, and working together. And for Jobs, it’s about setting priorities and sticking to them.

Perhaps you’re a leader who’s gotten feedback that you’re “not innovative enough” because it’s not your natural gift to spawn a dozen new ideas every year. Or maybe you’re managing a team where you’re feeling frustrated with their “lack of innovation.” In either case, you may want to consider expanding your understanding of what innovation is, and what it requires to flourish. In addition to the range of competencies cited from Heffernan through Jobs above, consider that innovative people:

  1. Provide a clear and compelling vision of the future
  2. Are curious and ask helpful questions
  3. Spot opportunities that others may not see
  4. Create a safe environment for trying new things
  5. Provide resources (time, money, labor, etc.) that support innovation
  6. Offer alternative perspectives to consider, including playing devil’s advocate
  7. Advocate for and model the importance of diversity and inclusion
  8. Give timely, useful feedback — both positive and negative
  9. Champion others, especially in the face of setbacks and roadblocks
  10. Recognize and reward innovative mindsets and behaviors

“Going by the book” when it comes to defining innovation isn’t, in fact, innovative at all. Considering the widest range of possibilities for how innovation can be described, recognized, and rewarded is.

Deborah Grayson Riegel Deborah Grayson Riegel is an executive coach and Director of Learning with The Boda Group. Deborah has coached hundreds of thousands of professionals to communicate more effectively in industries ranging from advertising, financial services, and government to non-profits, pharmaceuticals, and technology. Deborah is a graduate of the University of Michigan and Columbia University, and an instructor of Management Communication at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Learn more about Deborah or get in touch.