If you've been reading business publications like this one, you likely have a high value for creativity and innovation. You probably spend a lot of time on idea generation--a necessary thing to do.
You might even be spending too much time coming up with ideas and not enough figuring out how to evaluate them. You want select the best ideas--not just any idea. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg didn't generate their business-launching ideas. They picked them.
This over-emphasis on idea generation is confirmed by 2012 research from the German University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, which found a "lack of research in the field of idea evaluation... and that the appropriate evaluation instruments are missing."
Idea evaluation is hard work. According to existing literature, only 6 percent of all "official" ideas and 14 percent of promising ideas that reach a development phase become commercial successes.
There are plenty of strategies out there for selecting the best ideas. They'll only take you so far if you don't understand these four fundamental principles for idea evaluation:
1. Generate and evaluate ideas in the same time block.
It's tempting to think of these two cognitive processes as independent--do one, and then the other.
A group of researchers found in 2016 that interrupting idea generation sessions with idea evaluation exercises produced ideas with higher originality. It activated neural pathways in participants' prefrontal cortices that remained enhanced during subsequent idea generation exercises.
By mixing idea evaluation into generation sessions and vice versa, you'll give yourself better options. Take breaks during idea generation sessions to ask:
- Which idea(s) already mentioned do we feel have the most potential to become our top choices?
- Could we combine these ideas in a way that would be better than any single idea?
- Are there any new ideas stirred during the evaluation process we missed?
2. Ask the right questions at the right time.
The best way to compare your ideas is a scale of one to 10, right? Think again. Ideas at different stages of maturity require different evaluation processes.
Research from 2010 found that "simple rating mechanisms such as thumbs up/down rating or 5-star rating do not produce valid idea rankings and are significantly outperformed by the multi-attribute scale." If simple ratings don't ask the right question, what's the right question?
It depends on the idea. In a blog post, Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen recommends: What job are potential users trying to get done that they would "hire" this idea to do for them?
That may not be your right question, but Christensen's specificity is important. Determine what you need from your idea and orient your question around it--like which idea would be most profitable, or which would most quickly solve a customer complaint.
3. Use your intuition before conducting an analysis.
Often, people feel pressured to choose between two types of cognitive processes: intuition and rationality. Research out the Dutch Eindhoven University of Technology finds that using both together leads to better quality and faster decisions.
The order in which you apply them matters: Start with your intuition. Before you assemble pros and cons, ask: Which idea(s) do I feel would best answer the questions? If you're moving straight from idea generation into evaluation, take at least a minute-long break so your unconscious mind can reflect on the ideas.
Then, use rationality to validate your intuition. If the rational approach leads to a different conclusion, reflect on the reasons you felt a different idea was better. Weigh the rational argument against the intuitive one.
4. Evaluate feasibility in a group.
In 2010, University of Pennsylvania researchers ran an experiment to understand which group structure would lead to the selection of better ideas:
- A team structure in which participants spent 35 minutes in groups of four generating, evaluating, and then selecting their best ideas.
- A hybrid structure, in which individuals spent 10 minutes on their own generating and ranking their ideas before joining three other participants to share and align on their favorites.
The groups in the hybrid structure generated more ideas and better ideas, and better discerned the quality of the ideas they generated. This confirms the research showing the counterproductive effect of group brainstorming.
It also raises another question: How did the group time in the hybrid structure positively affect their work? Different research offers an explanation: Group work produces more feasible ideas while individual work produces more original ideas. To get both original and feasible ideas, you need to combine individual time with group time as the researchers did in the hybrid structure.
Before investing more in refining your idea generation processes, take a few minutes to assess your idea evaluation processes. You may just find that you're coming up with winning ideas, but failing to pick them.