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With Ideas, Quantity Creates Quality

September 10, 2020 • De Pree Journal

There is a giant redwood tree in my grandmother’s tiny backyard. Towering sixty feet tall, it has no business growing in a suburban neighborhood. There is, of course, a story. In the 1920s, when a man named Lester owned the place, he went to visit the redwoods. While there, he discovered a redwood seedling. He carried it home in a coffee can and transplanted it in his yard. For many years he watered it while it struggled to put down roots. Then, when those roots hit the water table, the tree shot up until it became the tallest tree in the valley.

Lester’s redwood is a metaphor for innovation, at least that is what the stereotype would tell you. But the stereotype is wrong. The standard story is that a lone genius—like Lester—discovers one big idea. It starts as a tiny seed. He nurtures it through hard times until it becomes a towering achievement. But all the research says that Lester’s brand of innovation is a myth.

The Redwood Myth of Innovation is a myth made up of many myths. There is the myth of the lone genius, epitomized by Thomas Edison working in his attic. But Walter Isaacson has shown that most of these “lone geniuses” are really embedded in communities of laborers. Edison, for example, formed a team of engineers working side by side. As one scholar put it, the team created the innovations, and Edison created the team. He created a community of people all working together to turn out innovations. Innovation happens in community.

Then there is the myth of the visionary leader, the person who rallies a people around an idea just as Lester picked up that little seedling. But, as Linda Hill and her team found, “leading innovation cannot be about creating and selling a vision.” Visionaries often tell people what to do without telling them how to do it. Innovation must include a plan of action.

Finally, there is the myth of the Eureka moment. The patron saint of the Eureka moment might be Albert Einstein, working with just his intuition, isolated in his lonely Swiss patent office. But Einstein himself debunked the myth. “Intuition,” he said, “is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience” that comes from interaction with the ideas of others. Walter Isaacson summarizes it this way: “An invention,” he says, “usually comes not from an individual brainstorm but from a collaboratively woven tapestry of creativity.” For “only in storybooks do inventions come like a thunderbolt, or a light bulb popping out of the head of a lone individual in a basement or garret or garage.” Ideas are not like a lone redwood tree. We will need a process for generating many ideas rather than risking everything on a single idea.

But there is something important about that Redwood Myth. It emphasizes that ideas grow. They are the product of the planting and watering that is the essence of a leader’s work (I Cor. 3:6). They start small and vulnerable. They need care—and the right environment. The problem comes in thinking that one tree stands alone. I would like to offer an alternative to the Redwood Myth.

Ideas are like saplings; you never grow them alone. If you are a farmer who wants to raise trees for sale, you do not grow one tree and hope it gets to be big. You plant rows of saplings. Some of the trees will die—as the parable goes. But from those rows you know you will get some excellent adults.

Ideas are like saplings; you grow them in numbers. The currency of innovation is new ideas, not great ones. Contrary to conventional wisdom, nineteen little ideas will yield more fruit than one big idea. And here is why. No idea is great at the beginning. It may be the seed of a great idea (a seedling, as it were). But rarely does a great idea come out fully formed. Great ideas are grown from small seeds; they do not hatch fully formed. So the hallmark of an innovative organization is the ability to regularly generate lots of new ideas.

Ideas are like saplings; you cannot know which one will grow into being a great idea. The innovation literature regularly repeats this, usually quoting Thomas Edison, who said, “To have a good idea, have a lot of them.” Edison built his lab around this idea of saplings—or what Edison called “the rapid and cheap development of an invention” by creating “a minor invention every ten days and a big thing every six months or so.” Or, as another scholar put it, innovation only comes from “a portfolio of ideas.”

Ideas are like saplings; you measure them in quantity, not quality. Because we cannot know which saplings will grow into great redwoods and we cannot postpone evaluating our work until the ideas have grown, we measure innovation in numbers, not size—just as Edison did. He measured innovation in ideas generated per week—or in saplings planted. He trusted that the right nurture would turn those saplings into trees and that some of those trees would become towering inventions. We need a process that generates lots of ideas—all of them focused on the people entrusted to our care.

Quantity leads to quality—that having many decent ideas is better than having one great idea. To further convince you about how quantity creates quality, let me tell you a story from a book called Creative Confidence, written by the founder(s) of the innovation-design firm IDEO. They describe an enterprising ceramics teacher who conducted an experiment. He divided the pottery class into two parts. To one group, he said that they would be graded on the quality of the one best piece they created in the semester. So that group toiled meticulously on their one item, seeking quality. To the other group, he said that they would be graded on the total amount of clay that they used in the semester. So that group burned through many projects, making a new one from scratch every time the class met. Which group produced the highest quality work? The one that aimed for quality, or the one that aimed for quantity? It was the group that aimed for quantity. Every iteration—every attempt—taught the student a little more. In the end, quantity creates quality.

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