brainstorming ideas

Idea generation at many companies is sporadic and haphazard. It often starts with a random one-off brainstorming meeting. Then a handful of ideas run the organizational gauntlet. A very small number of those ideas ever see the light of day.

I recently followed a long-time dream of going to The New Yorker with a batch of cartoons and had lunch with a group of New Yorker cartoonists. It was a real treat, but it also made me think about the process of coming up with ideas. New Yorker cartoonists live by a few philosophies that are relevant to any type of idea generation:

1) Quantity Breeds Quality

The more ideas you come up with, the better you get at it. Jack Ziegler once said that he finally started getting the hang of drawing cartoons after the three thousandth one. Similarly, the more ideas an organization creates, the better the organization gets at coming up with ideas. Rather than schedule sporadic brainstorming meetings only when needed, develop the organizational habit of coming up with new ideas all the time.

2) Always Be Shipping

Matthew Diffee describes New Yorker cartoonists as “idea factories”. The New Yorker receives over 1,000 submissions every week for 16 spots. Each regular cartoonist generally submits 10-15 cartoons to the New Yorker a week, every week. They are lucky if they get even one chosen. Most cartoonists submit 10-15 cartoons a week for a full year before getting one in the magazine. The most important trait is perseverance. In contrast, organizations rarely “ship” their ideas. There’s opportunity to get more of our ideas into the “oxygen of the real world”.

3) It’s The Think, Not The Ink

Editor Bob Mankoff often says he evaluates cartoons based on the think, not the ink. What more important than a detailed drawing is the gist of the joke. Similarly, a basic prototype is often more valuable than a polished PowerPoint presentation. But organizations often get caught up in PowerPoint-itis. It reminds me of two Facebook organizational mottos: “Code wins arguments” and “Done is better than perfect”.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away one signed print of this week’s cartoon. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. I’ll pick one comment. Thanks!)

  1. Charlie Menghini says

    Brilliant. Simply brilliant thinking and brilliant work. You bring a smile to my face each and every time I receive one of your messages. There is so much humor in truth when we can just detach our egos from the situation and look at them objectively. It seems that we all get so wrapped up in justifying our positions that we fail to lose sight of the big picture. It is as if that WE are the big picture. The old, “what’s in it for me?” syndrome.

    Continued best to you and thanks for the inspirations. YOU are making a difference.

  2. Bill Carlson says

    So important: “develop the organizational habit of coming up with new ideas all the time.”

    Actually, there are a number of activities which should become “organizational habits” rather than be driven by reactions to problems or worse yet, the result of a spur-of-the-moment idea. When there is no “rhythm” to these activities, they tend to create more anxiety in the anticipation, and frustration when nothing seems to change.

    One company I worked for had a standing meeting, twice each month, to brainstorm new product ideas — identified representatives from a cross-section of functions who know they were meeting regularly made it part of their process, something to keep in mind all the time.

    And attendance was not optional — it was considered a key contributor to long-term success and the meeting didn’t get delayed based on everyone being too busy with day-to-day responsibilities.

    There are other examples but the next time you think “we should get a team together to explore XXX”, consider whether or not XXX is something which should be looked at regularly. Of course, virtually *everything* should be looked at regularly so it’s more about making the commitment to the effort, getting it firmed up on the annual calendar. And senior management needs to demonstrate the importance of these efforts by not allowing delays, making sure they are active participants and being ready to accept and apply the results.

  3. euonymous says

    Getting the hang of it after 3,000 cartoons reminds me it supposedly takes 10,000 hours of work on something before you really “get it.” That’s 5 or more years for some people, a lot less for others who are more focused. That seems right. You know I bet you could do 3,000 cartoons in 10,000 hours. As for #3, let’s just say I’m a devotee of xkcd.

  4. Bryan Mattimore says

    Wow, 3,000 cartoons…and 10,000 hours before you “get it.” I’ve got over 10,000 hours of facilitating brainstorming/ideation sessions so I hopefully I’ve now “got it.” If I could boil down brainstorming/ideation session down to one key principle/component, it’s that one needs to spend time preparing the session, selecting which (of literally hundreds of)ideation techniques have the greatest likelihood of generating strategically on-target ideas for your specific challenge. Bryan Mattimore, Author, Idea Stormers, How to Lead and Inspire Creative Breakthroughs.

  5. sonya says

    Once again you hit the nail on the head. It’s sad how often people find it easier to complain than to actually do something to better a situation.

  6. Karl Sakas says

    On “Done is better than perfect” and the importance of shipping, I’m reminded of Tina Fey’s retelling of Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels’ advice to the SNL writers: “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready. The show goes on because it’s 11:30.”

  7. Helen Gould says

    It’s sad that many people in business do not consider themselves “creative,” and then live up to their self-imposed label. I think part of the business challenge is really believing that anyone can have a great idea.

  8. DSprogis says

    Hey Tom,

    Great toon – so right.

    Too often, the great ideas shift the balance of power or demand the organization to stretch more than it really wants to.

    Start-ups are born when large companies drop the ball on great ideas.


  9. DSprogis says

    … oh, and to the motto “done is better than perfect”, just Google “width of railroad tracks” to see how standards can propagate. In another example, most people would agree that Metric is better than English Imperial but look at how long that transition is taking.

    So sometimes perfect is better than done – the trick is to predict when to go with which.

  10. Bryan Mattimore says

    Okay, so what’s my “think not ink” New Yorker cartoon idea? (My first… only 2,999 until I get the hang of it.)

    There’s a sign in a classroom setting that says “Insurance Salesman Training Room.”

    In the room a guy is writing on a backboard, completing following sentences:

    God forbid you get _______cancer and die______

    God forbid you get ______a brain tumor ______

    God forbid you get ______in a car accident are paralyzed from the waist down ______

    God forbid you get ______

    God forbid you get ______

    God forbid you get ______


  11. Boris Borchert says

    That is so true. I heard that at Google they throw 2/3 of their ideas away, but they produce them rapidly.

    I would love to mention the New Yorker “Rejection Collection” with a lot of lovely cartonns and some information about they cartoonists. They are worth every cent.

  12. says

    Hi all,

    I really enjoyed all of your insights, thanks! This week’s print goes to Bill Carlson. I love the illustration of the standing meetings, twice a month, to come up with ideas. Exactly what we need to create in our work environments. Thanks!


  13. chris says

    This all makes perfect sense. In personal or small freelance projects these points are very much part of the process of producing design.

    The confusing part for me is, in my 5th year out of university, after various design jobs in small & large companies, I’ve never seen these points even attempted. Avoiding shipping is always a huge problem as is having no formal or informal idea/concept generation on a regular bases, or more commonly no idea generation whatsoever (until the company is in serious trouble or there literally nothing at all for anyone to do).

    I have yet to work anywhere that isn’t fear driven. No idea is too small to be crushed at the water cooler. No idea is safe from unsolicited fearful, off the cuff remarks that kill anything new before anyone has considered it.

    It was all very different at university & with personal projects. It’s deeply upsetting.

  14. Clip Creative and PR says

    Very Good Points. Thoroughly enjoyed the It’s the Think, Not The Ink paragraph as companies should always be brainstorming new ideas.

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