Where Do Great Ideas Come From?

The Generalist:

The great business theorist Peter Drucker didn’t think all that much of ideas. “Ideas are cheap and abundant,” the management expert said, “What is of value is the effective placement of those ideas into situations that develop into action.” 

Drucker’s position is a common one. Across academia and industry, plenty of fine thinkers have made equivalent statements, arguing that real value resides in effective implementation, not ideation. The prolific executive brings most value to the world, this thesis goes, rather than the unproductive theorist. 

Though there’s wisdom in Drucker’s words, he is wrong in his assessment of ideas. Ideas are not cheap, not the valueless things the Austro-American characterizes them as. Certainly, ideas cannot impact society without “effective placement,” but there would be nothing to “place” without them. They are the seed of all progress, the beginning of every great invention. The fibers of our clothing, refrigeration of our food, design of our medicines, and architecture of our computer chips all began as ideas, or more accurately, a series of ideas stacked on top of each other, finely balanced. 

Nor are ideas abundant. Indeed, there is evidence they are growing rarer by the year. A Stanford University study titled “Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?” detailed how “research effort is rising substantially while research productivity is declining sharply.” For example, maintaining Moore’s Law – which predicts the doubling of transistors on a computer chip every two years – has required massive increases in research efforts. Compared to the 1970s, 18x more researchers are needed to continue its trajectory, with productivity slipping. The study documents similar slumps in other industries like agriculture and healthcare. 

The decrement of ideas makes their study all the more important. Rather than diminishing them, we should seek to understand better how, where, and by who they are created. What incentives encourage originality? Who should you hire to boost an organization’s innovation? And how do you harness the abilities of a collective?