High Performance Idea Generation

I’m currently plodding my way through #Acumen and IDEO’s Human Centred Design for Social Innovation course which is very interesting and very well co-ordinated…Take a bow guys! I’ve read a lot of the Design Thinking literature over the last few years, namely IDEO CEO Tim Brown’s Design Thinking, Creative Confidence by the Kelley Brothers and Warren Berger’s Glimmer – which incidentally is the one I enjoyed the most.

I’ve used the IDEO approach to brainstorming quite a bit on my own projects – these being:

  • Defer Judgement
  • Encourage wild ideas
  • Build on the ideas of others


When I started using the approach people were often surprised that I was asking them for ideas, and took to building on other people’s ideas with more enthusiasm than I would have expected. A key learning was to always leave their direct reports out of the room as it led to a freer and less stifled environment.

General Leslie Groves and Robert Oppenheimer
General Leslie Groves and Robert Oppenheimer

I came across Boynton and Fisher’s Virtuoso Teams concept while reading Roland Huntford’s “Race for the South Pole: The Expedition Diaries of Scott and Amundsen” and I picked up a copy of the book as soon as I could – The book by the way is far more insightful than the HBR article. The chapter on the Manhattan Project is possibly the most interesting of them all with regard to a High Performance team’s approach to idea generation. The following quote is particularly revealing:

“In an effort to keep alternative ideas flowing and perspectives fresh, [Robert] Oppenheimer forbade the originators of ideas from claiming ‘ownership.’ Everyone was forced to work on the ideas of others. Revealing his frustration with this policy, [Edward] Teller wrote: ‘Almost constant collaboration was necessary, all the work done at feverish pace, and one’s new idea, once hatched, could be taken away and given to others to develop…[It was] a little like giving one’s child to someone else to raise.”

Both Oppenheimer and Leslie Groves – the Project Leader – championed the generation of wild ideas and as a result Seth Neddermeyer came up with the “Implosion Model” which was initially ridiculed by a number of his colleagues. Though Oppenheimer was also sceptical he asked Neddermeyer to continue to develop the idea in isolation from the rest of the project. It became clear early in the second year of the project that the originally favoured “Gun Model” wouldn’t work and that the “Implosion Model” was the only viable alternative.

Though Neddermeyer had generated and developed the idea, new input was required to make the option workable. As a result “Neddermeyer was asked by Oppenheimer to give up his leadership role on what was originally his idea, and pass this project on to others for completion.”  A bit like John Lennon finishing off a Paul McCartney song maybe – then again their solo work wasn’t up to much was it?


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