What makes an idea one that’s worth pursuing? Often, an idea’s true potential is not realized until it finds the right audience or meets the right need. Just as beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, the value of an idea is determined by those who recognize its significance. 3M’s attempt to make a super glue was considered a failure until an employee realized the removable adhesive that had been invented met a need, and Post-it Notes were created. Alexander Fleming’s frustration that mold spores had contaminated his petri dish sparked an idea that what he was witnessing could become bacteria-killing penicillin. When solutions meet the right need, they become ideas that, after testing, can become innovations. Consider the case of the viral “crookie” – a flaky croissant, stuffed with cookie dough. One day, Stephane Louvard, Parisian pastry chef and owner of Maison Louvard bakery, saw his workers making croissants on one table and cookies on the other and thought, what would happen if I combined them? He baked his “crookie” pastries for regular customers for two years, and then they went viral on TikTok and the world took notice. Production is now between 1,000 and 1,600 crookies per day. The story echoes Dominique Ansel’s “Cronut” – a croissant-donut hybrid that captured the attraction of foodies everywhere, transforming a simple baked good into a cultural phenomenon. These examples illustrate how an idea’s impact is determined by the audience. This is not to say creators should care about audience acceptance. The best do not. As Alan Moore, author works like Watchmen and V for Vendetta, wrote, “If the audience knew what they needed, they wouldn’t be the audience. They would be the artist.”

Mapping from idea to innovation

What turns a concept of an idea into an innovation worth pursuing? The transition happens when the idea connects with a need (the creativity connects with the audience). The journey from thought to idea to innovation can be divided into several stages: 1. The seed: An idea begins as a seed, a spark of curiosity or a playful exploration of possibilities. Remember the Albert Einstein assertion that “play is the greatest form of research.” 2. Interest: The idea fully forms but without a hypothesis of a need. 3. The search for a need: At this stage, the idea is evaluated against potential needs or problems it could solve. The search can lead along three pathways:
  • The idea finds a need: You’ve found the sweet spot. Once a genuine need is identified, the idea gains momentum and purpose.
  • It’s an idea for another time: Though you dreamed of immediate acceptance, you can’t seem to find anyone who needs it. That’s ok. This does not mean the idea has no value. IBM invented the original smartphone in 1992 but discontinued it only a year later, too far ahead of its time. Save your idea in an idea reservoir for the future.
  • It’s an idea for another need: Sometimes the idea is valuable, but not for the need you thought. Listerine was once promoted as a floor cleaner and the children’s toy Play-Doh began as a wallpaper cleaner. Search for a different need.
Once your idea has met with a need, you’re ready to act. The idea may require adjustments or iterations to better align with its need. When the right need and solution align, the idea can blossom into a tangible innovation.

Creating idea reservoirs in organizations

Many organizations fail in their attempt to preserve ideas that haven’t found a need. They shut it down as “something we tried but didn’t work.” But other organizations recognize innovations depend on the audience as much as on the idea itself. They have a mission to match ideas to needs. Companies like InnoCentive have embraced the power of crowdsourcing to match ideas with needs. By offering incentives and challenges, they tap into a global pool of talent and perspectives, increasing the chances of finding the perfect solution. They make it easier for ideas to find needs and needs to find ideas. Companies should also maintain idea reservoirs, keeping creations on call for the right time. We have yet to find a company that formally does this. For a company to foster continuous innovation, it is not enough to nurture the generation of new ideas. But also, to maintain a robust “idea marketplace” – a space where ideas and needs can find each other.

Final thoughts

Innovations are born when play meets purpose, when ideas meet needs. To judge an idea by its immediate reception is to waste creative power. If we can maintain active “idea marketplaces” in which ideas can search for new needs and wait for new times, we will waste far less and open up far more possibilities.

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