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Wednesday, June 27, 2018

How to generate more and better business ideas

The education moment delivered to the BNI Boundless Business networking group on June 28, 2018.

By Aaron S. Robertson

The author is pursuing a Ph.D. in leadership from Cardinal Stritch University, where he also holds a master's degree in management. His dissertation is in the realm of workplace culture. Learn more about him here.

So yesterday, I just ended a brief summer school program as part of my doctoral studies at Cardinal Stritch University. We call it the Summer Institute, and it runs just shy of two weeks, including the weekends, and it’s pretty intense, so much so that I rent a dorm room on campus and spend most of my nights there. There’s a lot of – you name it – writing, speakers, workshops, group work, personal reflection time, etc. Every year, the Summer Institute has a designated theme to it, and this year’s was “Creativity”. Now, we’re not art students – we’re studying leadership – but a lot of the books, articles, talks, and activities we went through tied into the art world in some way. We even took a trip down to the Art Museum on one of our days. But what I’m going to talk with you about here, though there’s some connection to art, certainly applies to business and leadership, so bear with me. I’d like to share with you some food for thought when it comes to generating ideas for your business or work.

One of the books we read and dissected is called, Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, authored by David Bayles and Ted Orland in 1993. The book addresses the challenges that are holding artists back from achieving their full potential and leading the kind of meaningful, fullfilling lives and careers that they seek – that we all seek, really, regardless of what we do for work or hope to accomplish in life. Though written for the artist community by two artists, the book is undoubtedly universal in its prescription for getting more out of our work and the potential that we all have to share.

Perhaps one of the main takeaways of the book, at least for me, is the concept of quantity over quality. On the surface, being in business, this concept was totally foreign and even somewhat alarming to me. Our minds are always trained to think quality over quantity, right? A quality customer experience, quality leads and referrals, a quality product, delivering value, right? So quantity over quality. Case in point: the authors describe an experiment in which a ceramics teacher divided his class into two groups. One of these groups was tasked with producing as many pieces of finished pottery as it could within a certain timeframe. For this group, 50 pounds or more of pottery produced would be worth an A grade. The other group, meanwhile, was charged with focusing solely on quality. Only one pot had to be produced, but it had to be of exceptional quality – essentially, it had to be perfect. In the end, the group tasked with the focus on quality produced nothing. The group only had to produce one piece, yet its members found themselves tied up in debate and discussion over what the perfect piece looks like. On the other hand, the team with the focus on quantity not only produced a significant number of finished pieces within the timeframe given, but the level of quality was noteworthy, as well.

The lesson here is that, in order to create anything worthwhile – art, written works, ideas, products and inventions, etc. – we can’t be afraid to bring those concepts into the physical realm in an imperfect state. Yet, all too often, we are afraid, and we might not even realize it. We want the concept to come into reality perfect the first time around. And because we allow ourselves to be paralyzed by that fear and indecision and eternal debate going on in our heads, we’re often left with nothing actualized. I can’t begin to imagine how many would-be thought-provoking literary works, useful inventions or improvements, fun songs, breathtaking works of art, and engaging ideas are either sitting in the minds of the living, or are forever lost with the passing of the departed, because improving and perfecting along the way does not, for whatever reason, seem good enough to us. We have to overcome this fear if we want to stop cheating ourselves and one another.

Certainly, this advice is pointed at me, as well. Now, I enjoy reading, writing on, thinking about, and discussing a wide range of non-fiction topics, including business and entrepreneurship, history, biography, philosophy, sociology, politics, and current events. Never much of a fiction fan, but always having had a love for writing, I’ve been entertaining the idea of writing a novel for several months now. I envision this novel being highly thought-provoking and philosophical, yet easily accessible and universal in its life lessons and portrayal of the human condition in these turbulent times that we find ourselves in. Like most people with ideas, I have not yet brought this concept into reality. I’ve been hung up on details and I’m still trying to figure out the overarching storyline that will bring everything together. Perhaps if I merely started writing down my thoughts so far, the rest will begin to fall into place much easier, and I would have something to share with the world.

Beyond the potential for creative works, though, I’ve also, in reflecting more deeply on this subject, certainly allowed business ideas that have entered my mind over the years to go to the wayside, as well, merely because I haven’t written them down. And if they’re not written down – kind of like goals, right? See a connection here? – if they’re not written down – if they’re not brought into physical existence – they can’t be debated, refined, enhanced, and perfected over time, either by myself, or by others, or with the help of others. I can’t begin to imagine how many others today – and through the ages – have done the same, consciously or unconsciously. There are certainly big implications to all of this, because we’re talking about wasted potential and opportunity that could improve the lives of others and strengthen entire societies and economies.

In order to begin to correct this problem, we ultimately need to arrive at the ability to begin to think and accept quantity over quality, at least where it concerns initial idea generation. This is no easy task, and it will take some time and struggle for many people to begin to think this way, including me. Like I said earlier, I’m used to thinking the opposite in my everyday business and work affairs – quality over quantity. But as see in the pottery example, the group tasked with focusing solely on quality could not produce one pot in the end, because its members were too tangled up in debate over what quality looks like. The group focusing solely on quantity, meanwhile, not only produced 50 pounds of pottery, but the quality of their products also happened to be significant, as well. See, once the quantity group really got going with its production, the quality managed to take care of itself as group members continuously honed their craft through natural practice and repetition.

I’m out of time, but I’ll leave you with one more, quick anecdote from another book we read called, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, written by Adam Grant, a world-class business and management professor and researcher at The Wharton School: For us to be able to name, or at least identify, one, two, three, maybe four paintings by Picasso, he had to create approximately 1,800 of them. That’s just what he produced in the painting world. He also created some 12,000 drawings, 1,200 sculptures, and 2,800 ceramics. Think quantity over quality. The handout that you received – a number of resources and activities to help you and your work teams translate these concepts into action. Thank you!



Bayles, D., & Orland, T. (1993). Art & fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking. Minneapolis: Image Continuum Press.

Grant, A. (2017). Originals: How non-conformists move the world. New York: Penguin Books.

TED Talk videos online

TED. (2016, February). Adam Grant: The surprising habits of original thinkers. Retrieved from

TED. (2010, June). Brene Brown: The power of vulnerability. Retrieved from

Activities for boosting generative thinking and idea production

1) Spend 20 minutes per day, by yourself, in a quiet place, writing down ideas about your business – improving processes, marketing ideas, new product or service offerings, how to better serve customers, what you wish you could change and how, new skills you’d like to develop, etc., etc., etc. Don’t debate in your mind whether the ideas are good or not. Don’t judge yourself. Just write freely. Think quantity over quality. Now that you’ve brought these ideas into existence, you can revisit them at any time to determine if there’s something there worth taking a closer look at. You can’t research, debate, refine, enhance, and perfect something that doesn’t exist!

2) Take the first activity, but modify it for use in a small group setting with your work teams, business partners, staff, etc. More than five participants at a time starts to be too many. If 20 minutes per day is not feasible, then try once or twice per week. Same concept – together, jot down ideas about your business. Since you’re working with others, you can piggyback off of one another’s ideas, and perhaps even ask clarifying questions to dig a little deeper. Absolutely no judgment. No hesitation. Just write and talk freely. Quantity over quality. Revisit another time as a group to figure out what’s worth taking a second look at and refining.

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