Career & Success

Keep ’Em Coming: Why Your First Ideas Aren’t Always the Best

In this episode, Jeremy Utley explains why good ideas are often preceded by not-so-good ideas.

October 25, 2022

What’s the secret to coming up with good ideas? For Jeremy Utley, it’s about generating as many as possible.

The director of executive education at the Stanford, Utley says, “very few problems we face in business or in life have a single right answer.” All ideas — the good, the bad, and the ugly — are “a necessary input to an innovation process,” and an essential step in getting to solutions that will actually work.

In this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, Utley and host Matt Abrahams explore how we can focus less on finding the “right” answer and open ourselves up to more innovative ideas.

Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.

Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: The essential ingredient to all innovation is ideas, but how do you come up with ideas? Are they good? How many should you have? Today we’ll be talking about the big idea behind good ideas.

[Music plays]

Matt Abrahams: I’m Matt Abrahams, and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast.

I am very excited to talk with Jeremy Utley. Jeremy is the director of Executive Education at Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, also known as the, where he co-leads the’s Launchpad Venture Accelerator. He hosts Stanford’s Masters of Creativity Web series. I look forward to talking about that. And along with Perry Klebahn, he recently published the book, Ideaflow: The Only Business Metric That Matters. Welcome, Jeremy. Thanks for being here. I’m super-excited for our conversation.

Jeremy Utley: Yeah. Me, too. Thanks for having me.

Matt Abrahams: Let’s jump in. You seem to have found a great niche for yourself straddling the business and creative worlds, and I know you have some strong beliefs about innovation in business. Can you share your perspective and what mindset you suggest people take when it comes to innovation in business?

Jeremy Utley: Yeah. A lot of people say, “I’m an ideas guy,” and … Not me — I mean, people call me an ideas guy — but people say of themselves: “I’m an ideas guy. I love ideas.” I respectfully say: “No, you don’t.”

Matt Abrahams: Oh?

Jeremy Utley: “You are an idea guy.” And it’s a key distinction. All over the world — doesn’t matter where I am, it doesn’t matter what culture it is — when people ask me what I do, I say: “I help people come up with ideas.” And universally I get the same response, if I’m in Japan or Hong Kong or Des Moines, Iowa: “How do you come up with good ideas?” And do you know what I say? I say: “Who said anything about good? I didn’t say I help people come up with good ideas.”

Matt Abrahams: I see.

Jeremy Utley: When people say, “I’m an ideas guy,” what they mean is they like new things. What I am saying when I say “No, you’re not. You’re an idea guy,” I’m speaking of a cognitive truth, which is every single one of us — it’s not an accusation; I’m as guilty as anybody else — every single one of us is prone to what Abraham Luchins in 1942 called the “Einstellung effect.”

Matt Abrahams: Tell me about that.

Jeremy Utley: Well, I like to think of it as the anti-Einstein effect. It’s what keeps us from our most breakthrough opportunities. And what Luchins demonstrated and what researchers at Oxford have subsequently demonstrated is that human beings, when they think of a solution to a problem, one, they stop thinking of other solutions, and two, they’re incapable of seeing better solutions.

Matt Abrahams: So they really lock in on that one solution, and it blinds them.

Jeremy Utley: So when you say you’re an ideas guy, I like to joke, “No, you’re not. You’re an idea guy,” because I am, too —

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jeremy Utley: — which is to say the tendency of the human brain is to fixate on the first solution that comes to mind. And yet there’s very little research, almost none, that suggests that there’s any kind of quality and time association, meaning the best ideas don’t come first.

In fact, there’s a fascinating piece of research called the “creative cliff illusion,” where the researchers demonstrated that the typical person, they have this expectation that your creativity will precipitously decline at some point. It’s a cliff. The reason they call it the “illusion,” though, is because it’s actually not true. Your creativity doesn’t decline — hardly at all, let alone precipitously. And in fact, there are some people for whom there’s actually a creative ramp, where creativity increases over time. You know who those people are?

Matt Abrahams: Tell me.

Jeremy Utley: They’re the people who expect they’ll keep having good ideas.

Matt Abrahams: Aah. So the mindset of expect— … Okay, I’m seeing how you’re building your answer. So what is that mindset that helps us create more and more ideas and not be blinded by the first one that pops into our head?

Jeremy Utley: Exactly. It’s shifting orientation, and that’s really at the heart of idea flow. The human tendency is to fixate on the right answer, and very few problems we face in business or in life have a single right answer.

Matt Abrahams: Sure.

Jeremy Utley: It’s not like math. And by the way, even in advanced math, there’s no single right answer.

Matt Abrahams: Right. Right, right.

Jeremy Utley: It blows your mind.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jeremy Utley: But most people think: “Can I just look in the back of the textbook and see: Did I get it right?”

Matt Abrahams: Yes.

Jeremy Utley: And that’s the wrong way to approach … What the subject line of this email should be, there’s no right answer. How I open this presentation, there’s no right answer. How I give this piece of feedback, there’s no …

So forget even new products and new services. If you think about the problems most managers or professionals face, they’re problems of “I’m trying to solve this thing right now.” And if they’re aware that their tendency is to fixate on the answer, if they shift their mindsets and say, “Instead of trying to come up with the right answer, I’m going to try to generate as many as I can possibly think of,” that actually has — it’s called what Luchins referred to as an “interrupt effect.” It interrupts your cognitive tendency to fixate on a first idea, but the important thing is you’re actually shifting the goal posts. You’re saying: “Instead of looking for the right answer, I’m trying to generate as many possible answers as I can.”

And we codify that in the book in a practice that we call the “Daily Idea Quota” where we say every day articulate one problem for which you’re trying to find the right answer, and just shift your mindset and say: “I’m going to come up with 10.” And 10 is somewhat arbitrary in the sense that it could be 100 or it could be 20, but it’s —

Matt Abrahams: But it’s more than one.

Jeremy Utley: It’s more than one, and it’s enough that people kind of run out of steam. Maybe they have one or two or three; but then they’ve got to force themselves to think beyond their current consideration set, and that’s where the interesting stuff happens. And so it’s really that shift in goal that we’re advocating as kind of a fundamental capacity-building …

Whether you solve the problem or not, what you have to know is what you’re doing with the Daily Idea Quota is you’re retraining your tendency to fixate on the first thing you think of. And if you solve the problem? Great. If you don’t, you’re building the muscle. And that’s the important thing.

Matt Abrahams: Right. So you’re training your brain to fight a cognitive habit that we have.

Jeremy Utley: Exactly. It’s about practice. I don’t know if you’ve ever read the klutz guide to juggling?

Matt Abrahams: Oh, yeah. That’s — yeah.

Jeremy Utley: Okay. So John Cassidy, he’s one of the instructors at the I know him well. He wrote the klutz guide. The whole first chapter of the klutz guide —

Matt Abrahams: Yeah, [crosstalk].

Jeremy Utley: — you throw the ball in the air, and you let it hit the ground. Whole first chapter. You do it hundreds of times. And I asked Cass: “Why do you do that?” “People have to be desensitized to the ball hitting the ground.” You can never learn how to juggle if you’re not comfortable with the ball hitting the ground, right?

Matt Abrahams: Nice.

Jeremy Utley: There’s something of that function being performed by a Daily Idea Quota. The cost of writing down a bad idea is basically zero. The potential benefit of allowing your brain to increase in variation is enormous. The world doesn’t end if I write down a dopey idea.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jeremy Utley: You know what I do? I throw the Post-It away. Doesn’t matter. But do I allow myself to entertain dopey enough to be brilliant? That’s really the question.

Matt Abrahams: That’s fantastic. You took me back to one of my favorite movies, The Karate Kid, and the repetition, over and over again, to get used to that.

Jeremy Utley: Yes.

Matt Abrahams: That’s great. Maybe that’s why I’m such a lousy juggler: I never practiced dropping the ball so much.

Jeremy Utley: You’ve got to do it, right? You’ve got to do it.

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely.

Jeremy Utley: And it costs nothing.

Matt Abrahams: That’s right.

Jeremy Utley: That’s the thing, except your cringe sense of “Oh, I failed again.” As long as you think failure is a bad thing, or a bad idea is a bad thing, you’re not going to do it. But if you realize it’s a necessary input to an innovation process or a funnel, then you embrace it as much as you embrace the good stuff.

Matt Abrahams: Do you have further ideas and practices for generating ideas? I like the daily list. That’s great.

Jeremy Utley: Hmm. Mm-hmm. Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: Are there other things that we can do to help strengthen that muscle to make ourselves more comfortable with idea generation?

Jeremy Utley: Yeah, a couple things come to mind. One is: Be thoughtful about inputs.

Matt Abrahams: Okay.

Jeremy Utley: Whenever we think about creativity and innovation, everybody is consumed with output: What happens?

Matt Abrahams: Right. Right.

Jeremy Utley: What designers know and what the does such a good job of emphasizing is input matters. The inputs to your thinking drive the outputs of your thinking.

Matt Abrahams: Sure.

Jeremy Utley: So if you’re exposing yourself to the same inputs, you shouldn’t be surprised if you’re getting the same output. If you’re trying to increase the variability of the output, then a simple question to ask is: Where could I go to learn something new? And there are tons of tools in the book, tons of tools we teach. A couple of simple examples I’ll give you. One is what we call a “wonder wander.”

Matt Abrahams: A wonder wander.

Jeremy Utley: Okay? So you take a problem in mind or take a problem in hand, and you walk a city block.

Matt Abrahams: Okay.

Jeremy Utley: And as you walk the city block, you look and you see an Adidas store, and you say: “How would Adidas deal with this?” You see a UPS truck drive by. How would UPS do this? You see a children’s playground. What does a playground have … You almost impute or project a sense of divine inspiration on everything you see. And what are you doing there? You’re entertaining new connections. So fundamentally, what is an idea? An idea is a connection. That’s it.

Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.

Jeremy Utley: The brain doesn’t make new material from nothing. There’s no such thing as ex nihilo creation in human beings, okay? Doesn’t exist.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jeremy Utley: What the brain does is it takes things we know and it snaps them together. So that’s the heart of a wonder wander. The other tactic I’d mention is: Change your collaborators. If you picture your wonder wander as you’re going about the block and you’re gathering Legos and you’re putting them in your bag — well, when you change collaborators, that new collaborator brings a new bag of Legos. And all of a sudden, I can try my Legos on with yours if the context is right.

And so thinking about, being thoughtful about “Who am I collaborating with? Who am I interacting with?” If it’s the same people, the same team doing the same thing, shocker if we keep saying the same ideas. And you look across history, see fantastic examples. I think about Ben Franklin, who, every single week for 30 years, met with the “Junto” he called it, which was a group of leather-aproned individuals from other organizations who would sit down in Philadelphia, and they would say on a regular weekly basis: “Has anybody moved here that we ought to know? Has anybody’s business failed? And why is that? Are there any scientific advances that would be relevant to our businesses?”

For 30 years, they met every week. And you wonder: How did Franklin come up with the lightning rod and map the Gulf Stream, and the Continental Congress and fire departments? It’s because his portfolio of collaborators was so broad.

And one of the things especially in this hyper-efficient moment we are in in [the] professional world: We don’t have time to go for a walk. We don’t have time to meet with people. Unless it’s clearly and directly related to the thing I’m working on right now, we’re not interested in more Legos. And then what we do is we sit around and go: “Why don’t I have any new ideas?” Well, you’ve been pushing all the other Lego piles away.

Matt Abrahams: I love your example of Legos. I am a big fan of not only Lego bricks themselves but the company —

Jeremy Utley: Oh!

Matt Abrahams: — and how they do what they do, especially around communication. I was introduced to you through a mutual friend, Brendan Boyle, who heads up IDEO’s Play Lab.

Jeremy Utley: Love Brendan.

Matt Abrahams: And he shared two additional techniques that I’d love just to get your opinion on for generating ideas. One is just a mash-up, where you just generate different ideas and then see what happens when you combine them together.

Jeremy Utley: Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: So think of animals, and then think of furniture, and what happens if you were to combine those and see. And then the other thing he shared with me which I get very excited about is thinking through analogies.

Jeremy Utley: Yes. Yes.

Matt Abrahams: And he shares this wonderful story that I love, and I’m wondering if you know the story, as well. Some hospital was looking to make itself more efficient — it’s ER rooms, emergency rooms, more efficient. And rather than going to other hospitals to see what they do, they went to a Formula One pit crew and saw: “What does a pit crew do?”

Jeremy Utley: Yeah. Yeah. Right.

Matt Abrahams: And they noticed lots of things, like they kit things together, and people have specific jobs and they stay in specific places. And it had a dramatic impact on the ideas they generate.

Jeremy Utley: Yeah. Yeah. What the research suggests is the more distant the analogy, the more breakthrough the results. Arthur Koestler, who’s a philosopher and author who wrote a fantastic book called The Act of Creation — 800-page tome on creativity — one of the things he said: He defined creativity as the collision of apparently unrelated frames of reference.

And so if you think about “apparently unrelated” being … Obviously, “collision” being the active verb there. But “apparently unrelated,” right? What does NASCAR have to do with a hospital? It actually has everything to do with it. And if you only think about superficial characteristics of an analogy, you’re stuck going to: What about nursing homes? And what about birthing centers? It’s all because you’re thinking health care, right?

Matt Abrahams: Yeah. Right.

Jeremy Utley: But if you start thinking about the deeper characteristics of the problem to be solved, this is about fast turns. Why don’t we go to Southwest Airlines? Maybe we could learn there. Right?

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jeremy Utley: This is about getting somebody in and out as quickly as possible. Well, let’s not go to the DMV. Whatever the case may be. So thinking about the characteristics of your problem often yields … And the research suggests when analogies were imposed that are farther afield than folks expect, the ideas were much more creative —

Matt Abrahams: Sure.

Jeremy Utley: — than analogies that were kind of typical and standard.

Matt Abrahams: I think many people who resonate with what you’re saying and can see the value in it are confronted with bosses or infrastructure that aren’t about that. How do you convince, persuade, cajole, prove that these ideas that you’re talking about can actually make a big difference for somebody who’s not of that mindset?

Jeremy Utley: Yeah, you’re right: that the environment determines a lot of your success. So there’s a couple of things here. One is the environment matters. And if you look at, for example, educational interventions, the single greatest variable that affects the success of the educated is the context into which they are sent.

So you can teach somebody anything fascinating. If they go into a context [that’s] hostile to it, they will revert back to average behavior. As a kind of playful aside: In the context of marriage, what I’ve noticed is — you know, respectfully, my wife will say: “Hey, we’re not at the right now. We’ve got to decide what we’re having for dinner,” and, “I don’t want to brainstorm.” Right?

Matt Abrahams: Right. Right.

Jeremy Utley: So you’ve got to be willing to say: “It takes two to tango, and sometimes we don’t have to tango. We’re just going to go to Chipotle. It’s cool.”

Matt Abrahams: Right. Right, right, right.

Jeremy Utley: Inaction is often rewarded in organizations, and in innovative organizations, inaction is punished. Doing nothing is not okay. The telltale sign that inaction is valued is, at the end of a meeting, what happens. In many organizations, there is a resolution to have another meeting.

Matt Abrahams: Yes.

Jeremy Utley: “Let’s talk about this next week.” What does that mean? We’re not taking action. And so what innovative leaders do is they end the meeting by saying: “What data do we need between now and the next meeting? And who’s going to create it? And how are you doing it?” They establish ownership. They establish accountability. If we don’t have new information, we’re not going to have a new conversation. The innovative leader is the one who has an instinct to go get new information before the next conversation.

Matt Abrahams: I want to turn our focus very specifically to communication. You are a master communicator — our audience is hearing that — and you’re great at telling stories. What advice do you have for listeners to help them communicate in general better, but communicate creative ideas better?

Jeremy Utley: A couple things come to mind. One is I think communication is ultimately about energy transfer. You’re trying to get your audience and recipient to feel the same degree or be energized to the same extent you are.

So if you take that as the premise, then the question is: Do I feel energy about this? I cannot transfer what I don’t possess. If I want to transfer energy, then I’ve got to find what’s invigorating to me about this. So tapping into your own authentic motivation is critical. And I would say the reason for a lot of failures in innovation in industry is nobody actually really cares. There’s not that fundamental care. So that’s one thing. In terms of communicating creative ideas, you have to start with: Why? It’s Simon Sinek, right?

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jeremy Utley: But a lot of times, we start with the user in the, the human being who is affected. I do not, by the way, believe that that’s the only way to come up with new ideas. We often say, “You’ve got to start with somebody other than yourself,” and yet history is littered with examples of people who designed for themselves, and it worked really well. So I don’t believe that it’s always got to be about the user.

But you do have to start with emotion, is the one thing I would say, and the tendency in business is to be sterile in our communication. We want only the facts. And so for a lot of people, when they’re communicating a creative idea, they talk about what’s new. They talk about the technology. But if you don’t talk about the emotional reason for being, the emotional impact that it’s going to have on a human being, you’re going to fail to rally that engagement from your audience, and you’re going to fail to transfer energy.

Matt Abrahams: I love that notion of transferring energy, and I find … I absolutely resonate that emotion is critical in communication, and in the work I do with my students and the people I coach who are technologists or scientists, they often bristle at this notion of emotion because it’s about bits and bytes. And in fact, I help them shift by simply saying: “If you’re saving trees, saving lives, saving money, saving energy, you’re actually doing something emotional” —

Jeremy Utley: Mm-hmm.

Matt Abrahams: — and, “Tap into that first as a way.”

Jeremy Utley: Absolutely.

Matt Abrahams: And I hear what you’re saying echoes that, as well. I want to turn now to your Masters of Creativity Web series.

Jeremy Utley: Sure.

Matt Abrahams: I’ve had a lot of fun watching it.

Jeremy Utley: Thanks.

Matt Abrahams: And I’ve learned a ton.

Jeremy Utley: Thanks.

Matt Abrahams: I’m curious to hear from you if you could share one or two of your favorite lessons from the show you do.

Jeremy Utley: [From my] memory banks. I think one of the most fascinating examples that I’ve heard is Leidy Klotz. He’s a professor at the University of Virginia, and he talks about how the human tendency — when we’re trying to make an improvement, we have a tendency to add. And what his research … And he had a landmark cover story on Nature, the scientific journal —

Matt Abrahams: Sure.

Jeremy Utley: — the same week that his book was published on the same topic, which was this idea of subtraction. Many times, the most elegant solution is to actually remove something, not to add something. And yet our tendency is always to add. That, to me, has profound implications for a lot of innovation efforts.

Matt Abrahams: Before we end, I’d like to ask you the same three questions I ask everybody who joins me. Are you up for that?

Jeremy Utley: Sure, bring it on.

Matt Abrahams: All right. If you were to capture the best communication advice you ever received as a five- to seven-word presentation slide title, what would it be?

Jeremy Utley: “Show Me Your Soul.” I was impacted by that line. The creative director of the, Scott Doorley, in an impassioned moment at a critical juncture in our organization’s history, made a plea for more soulful work. And it often comes to mind. I don’t even know if I’ve gotten it right, verbatim, but that’s what I took away from it, was …

And to me, it’s this sense of care. Do you even care about this? And I really feel that’s integral, as I said earlier, to communication: that sense of … That’s the nuclear reactor at the center. That has the … Not to make a political statement. All I mean is that’s what will generate incomparable energy is that sense of soul, that sense of care.

Matt Abrahams: Very powerful and very evocative, the analogy you used. Question 2: Who is a communicator that you admire, and why?

Jeremy Utley: My dad, definitely. He has a masterful way of getting folks to stay engaged. He was a preacher when I was growing up. That’s a preacher’s job — if folks are falling asleep in the pews, you’re in trouble, although that happens a lot, unfortunately. But he’s since moved on to other professions.

But everybody has got a repertoire of stories, my dad included. Always he’s adding new stories to the repertoire, obviously. But one of the things I’ve realized is he’ll be telling a story, and I know that I know it already, but I don’t interrupt him because I’m trying to figure out: What is the arc here that makes people lean in? And I feel like I’ve learned, even subconsciously, a lot of my own storytelling technique from how he taught me almost in more of an apprenticeship model.

Matt Abrahams: I think it’s wonderful that you admire your father and his storytelling. All parents should strive to have their kids admire something about them.

Jeremy Utley: Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: But what I find fascinating is that you’re actually looking at the technique structure of the story, as well. That’s important, and that’s something we’ve talked a lot about on this show. Let me ask Question 3: What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

Jeremy Utley: What, when, and why.

Matt Abrahams: All right.

Jeremy Utley: I think being simple. But to me, if you’re going to be successful, you’re — hopefully at the end the day you want to change something in terms of action or behavior. I think that’s communication. It is hopefully to change something. So if it’s in the bowl of action, so to speak, then: What is the change? When does it have to happen? And why do I want it to happen? It may be a little bit of a superficial answer, but to me, it’s —

Matt Abrahams: I don’t think that’s superficial at all. I think that’s actually really insightful. The piece there that we have not heard in any way, shape, or form is the “when” piece. Things happen on a timeline with a sense of urgency or not, and you need to factor that in. I appreciate you adding that to our catalog of things to be thinking about when we create our communication recipes. Well, Jeremy, it has been a true pleasure.

Jeremy Utley: Awesome.

Matt Abrahams: I appreciate you bringing your full soul and energy to this conversation. Everybody listening, take lots of ideas away for how they can be more creative.

Jeremy Utley: I hope so.

Matt Abrahams: And certainly I had a lot of fun, and this dialogue continues the many that we’ve had in the past. Thank you so much, and I wish you best of luck not only on your show but also on your new book.

Jeremy Utley: Thank you.

[Music plays]

Matt Abrahams: Thanks for joining us for another episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast from Stanford Graduate School of Business. This episode was produced by Jenny Luna, Michael Reilly and me, Matt Abrahams. For more information and episodes, visit, or subscribe to our show wherever you get your podcasts. Finally, find us on social media @stanfordgsb.

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