A New Book from Stanford’s d.School Has a Strong Take on Generating (and Testing) Fresh Ideas

By Meghan Hall |  October 24, 2022

Innovators often struggle to find the right metrics.

In the new book Ideaflow: The Only Business Metric that Matters, the authors contend that “the most useful measure of creativity we’ve found is as follows: the number of novel ideas a person or group can generate around a given problem in a given amount of time.”

Co-authors Perry Klebahn and Jeremy Utley, directors of executive education and adjunct professors at Stanford’s d.School, also cover constructive strategies for generating those ideas — whether individually, with a team, or as a business unit. 

We spoke with them about how to use ideaflow as a metric — and how to test ideas after you’ve generated lots of them.

Doesn’t the Quality of Ideas Matter More Than Quantity?

Utley said without a large number of ideas, it can be difficult to find the best one. 

Jeremy Utley, Co-Author of Ideaflow: The Only Business Metric that Matters

“It’s very difficult for us to think of the concept of ideas without associating some elements of quality to it. … It’s a constraint, it’s a blinder that keeps people from engaging with the more fundamental reality, which is [that] you need a lot of ideas to get to a good idea,” he said. 

That’s why, the authors assert, quantity actually can be more important than quality. 

The benefit of increasing the variability of the ideas you’re willing to share is enormously high.

“The single greatest determinant of the quality of your ideas is actually how many you have. If you want to get good ideas, you should be seeking to come up with more,” Utley said. “They’re not all going to be good. There’s nothing wrong with that. … The benefit of increasing the variability of the ideas you’re willing to share is enormously high,” Utley said. 

How Should Innovators Handle Creating Those Ideas?

Throughout the book, Utley and Klebahn provide an array of unique perspectives on brainstorming, but the bottom line remains that innovators have to do it — and keep up with it — as a practice. 

Perry Klebahn, Co-Author of Ideaflow: The Only Business Metric that Matters

Klebahn suggested adding a short brainstorming session into recurring meetings with a team. 

“If you want to routinely innovate… what would be awesome is to, in your hour-long team meeting, have a portion that’s always devoted to a brainstorm,” he said. “If you measure [output over time], you’ll see that output increase, just by virtue of doing something as a practice and not as a one off.”

Utley and Klebahn shared a variety of ways to initiate idea generation outside of team meetings, though. And one of them involves putting extra weight on a beginner’s opinion. 

Why Embrace the Novice Perspective?

Klebahn and Utley said acknowledging a beginner’s perspective can be one way to disrupt the status quo. 

“Novices are able to ask really great questions, because they don’t have all that expertise that stops them [from] thinking, ‘Oh, that’s a silly question,’” Klebahn said. 

For that reason, novices can push an organization to see where its goods or services may not align with the average consumer’s changing habits or expectations. 

Novices are able to ask really great questions, because they don’t have all that expertise that stops them [from] thinking, ‘Oh, that’s a silly question.’

“[We] often say that novices notice things that experts don’t, so you want a ‘notice novice’ on your team,” Utley added.

What is Assumption Reversal — and How Does it Work?

True beginners can be invaluable to an organization, but grizzled veterans can take on beginners’ curiosity in the right circumstance. 

“Another really powerful tool that we describe in the book is what we call an assumption reversal. What that tool is, is a way to have a directed approach to taking a beginner’s mindset.”

Ideaflow: The Only Business Metric that Matters comes out October 25.

Utley said innovators should find a type of user or customer they don’t understand or don’t serve as well as they could, and ask themselves, ‘What’s a place they love to visit?’

From there, innovators should go to that space and observe, asking questions about the design and trying to glean insights about why their target audience appreciates that place so much. Assumption reversal has led financial moguls into Urban Outfitters and brought high-end golf executives into Claire’s Boutiques, among other unlikely combinations of people and places — stories Klebahn and Utley tell in their book. 

“You go to a place that’s designed for people that you admit you don’t understand. … And you look at various elements of the space, and you presume design intent. Even the things, and perhaps, especially the things, that challenge your definition of good design are important to pay attention to.”

Those observations may be a window into misunderstood customers. If innovators can understand what their customers love, it becomes possible to integrate it into their business and offerings. 

What Should Innovators Do with the Ideas Once They Have Them?

Armed with an array of brainstorming tools, innovators can set themselves up for success by the ideaflow metric standard. The trouble might become selecting which of the many ideas should move forward. 

In the book, Utley and Klebahn suggest experimentation and testing to determine which ideas are best.

“When you boost ideaflow, test-based filtration becomes a necessity. There are too many ideas to consider, and… our biases tend to steer us from the winners even if it were possible to identify them without real-world data. A good test rules out lots of options that won’t work while homing in on the ones that might, vastly reducing the risk of failure,” the authors say in the book. 

A rapid, scrappy test should take hours, tops. Not weeks, and certainly not months.

But sometimes, even making it to that testing point can garner resistance. The authors recommend reframing testing as a short, quick process to determine the viability of an idea, rather than a long, drawn-out ordeal reserved for only an idea or two. 

“This resistance fades once everyone understands what testing actually entails. A rapid, scrappy test should take hours, tops. Not weeks, and certainly not months,” they write. 

Doing low-stakes, short-term tests can ultimately save an organization from spending lots of money on developing undesirable products. 

“The best experiments return lots of actionable data in exchange for a minor investment of time and energy,” they write. “Why invest months and millions in a new product when a few days and a few hundred dollars might reveal that nobody wants to buy it as currently envisioned? In fact, why pursue any new idea seriously if you don’t have credible evidence of desire?”