The best ways to have good ideas? Have lots of bad ideas!

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At the end of the day, we all want to produce creative and innovative work that is high quality and remembered.

But how do we get to these high quality ideas?

Many people get paralysed by the fear of producing something which is not good enough. They don’t want to produce bad work, and therefore often wait for the perfect moment of inspiration.

Unfortunately, waiting for the Eureka Moment to produce your best work is a myth.

Instead, research shows that if you want to produce lots of high quality ideas, the best way to do this is to have even more bad, low quality ideas.

A LOT more bad ideas.

Essentially, if you produce a large quantity, it is more likely that a proportion of that will be bad. But a proportion of it will also be good. It is the law of averages. In any large data set, some things are going to be terrible, the most are going to be around average, and some are going to be significantly better than average, with only a handful being recognised as the best.

If you look at many of the world’s most famous creators, whether it is musicians, artists, mathematicians or entrepreneurs, we often remember their most famous successes. What most people forget though is that they also produced a significantly larger amount of output which is not nearly as well remembered. And in many cases, many of these outputs were nowhere near as good as their successes.

If these Geniuses were to be judged only on these less-famous creative outputs (or failed businesses for Entrepreneurs), they would likely be forgotten.

This has also been shown in the scientific literature, pioneered by Prof Dean Keith Simonton who we recently had on the podcast.

In a 1977 research paper, when Simonton looked at creative productivity, he saw there was a relationship between how much volume of output a composer produced, and the examples of both high and low quality output.

More importantly, he found that the likelihood of any one single piece of output as being regarded as high-quality had approximately equal odds for a famous creative Genius as it would be for anyone else in the field. Geniuses had as many hits as misses as anyone else.

From then, this was referred to as the Equal-Odds rule, which showed that the reason these Geniuses were more successful than others, and had more high quality creative work that people remember, is because they produced more work overall.

Essentially, when it comes to having high quality ideas, and more importantly, high quality ideas:

Quantity breeds Quality

The Equal-Odds rule has also been studied extensively by other creativity researchers. They have found that in brainstorming sessions, focussing on quantity of ideas led to more quality ideas as well.

Other studies have also supported a link between higher rates of responses on ideation tasks and the creativity of the output.

However, some statistical assessments point out the Equal-Odds rule is not a perfect predictor for creative output.

So what are some of the reasons there might be a link between quantity and quality of ideas:

  • An effective exercise in many ideation workshops is to start by suggesting or writing out the very worst ideas possible. Deliberately bad ideas. People are often afraid of their ideas being judged as bad, that by getting the worst ideas out of the way first, it frees them up to think of ideas which are better.
  • You need to get past all of the boring ideas you have which are based on memories, before you get to the more original ideas.
  • More time executing leads to more time practising and developing the skills needed. Often the most creative people have spent years or decades. It is also more likely that this leads to deliberate practice, where the skills are continuously improved. It also means you are eventually more likely to enter a flow state, where you can reach maximum creative productivity.
  • Spending time working and producing in a domain, or a specific field, gives you a deeper understanding of what has already come before, and also allows you to understand the limits to not only what you currently understand and are able to produce, but what you need to achieve to reach the next level. This is vital for anyone wanting to make a mark on a specific field.
  • People who immerse themselves in working and producing in a field are more likely to be in contact with other people in the field, which can lead to inspiration, collaboration and sometimes even competition between individuals and groups who build on each others’ work. They are also more likely to adapt their work to the changing demands of the field and the market.

So if you ever feel the pressure to come up with a single great, high quality idea, it might be more effective to produce a few hundred ideas instead.

Most of them will be terrible.

But statistically, you are more likely to have a few excellent ones in there as well.

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