idea innovation, creativity, collaboration and consensus


“Nowadays it is the fashion to pretend that no single individual is ever responsible for a successful advertising campaign. This emphasis on “teamwork” is bunkum – a conspiracy of the mediocre majority.”

 David Ogilvy


Here is where I begin: Collaboration and Consensus often generate a generalist idea, in other words, mediocrity. Now. There is clearly a difference (or distinction?) in-between collaboration and consensus, but for the purposes of today I throw them into the same bucket because, typically, that what business does. While collaboration, well done, can expand ideas, consensus, well done, constricts ideas. Consensusing (I made up that phrase) arcs toward appealing to the masses (and therefore the group in general), but lacks the distinctness and “edges” that could differentiate it.


That said (before I start hearing the screams of anguish from everyone who advocates the power of collaboration). Hey. I am all for collaboration. I believe it uncovers well-rounded ideas and sometimes even creates that unique “wow” idea in discussion, but collaboration is like a bell curve. This is a reminder that collaboration has costs as well as benefits.

In the beginning, because collaboration doesn’t come naturally to specialists (and it shouldn’t because specialists are good at what they do because they are…well…specialized), you are at the bottom side of the bell curve. This time in the collaboration process is pretty nonproductive and there is (or should be) a lot of banging together of different disciplines and knowledge.

** note: this is a reflection of conflict and how people, in general, suck at navigating conflict particularly when associated with ideas. Conflict Well Done.


That’s okay.

I call this stage “positive friction.” Some pushing and shoving and jostling for ideas.

Somehow the collaborators involved learn to collaborate (typically there is some generalist who is better than others at figuring out how to not only get everyone to “play well together”, but also figure out what pieces of the puzzle are most interesting and useful and get them placed on the table to discuss). And ideas start flowing and being discussed and debated.

From that point the collaborators are moving on up (to use a Jefferson’s reference). You are aiming toward the top of the bell curve. And this is where the ‘bigger’ ideas <and sharper insights> arise.

The ideas that are awesome and distinct and, frankly, almost undoable (for a variety of reasons).

Unfortunately, that is when you start heading back down the bell curve.

This is also where a great generalist stops themselves (maybe not everyone else but themselves) and captures ideas into two groups:


      1. The non-doable ideas because of truly functional reasons.

They were, and are, great ideas. Consistent with the vision of the company, ideas that could put the company on the map (or keep them ahead of everyone else). They just cannot operationally be done at this time. Maybe you don’t have the ingredient that can deliver the “wow” aspect. Or the factories are not capable of producing it. Or your service people just can’t do it. Interestingly, these are the types of ideas a company needs.

These are truly the innovation ideas that the company needs to assess and throw into a new products funnel or feasibility studies to see whether it is worth the investment to make the idea functionally “happenable” (not really a word but I liked typing it).


      1. The non-doable ideas because of…well…politics or such.

They are “too hard to implement.”

“Betsy (some senior person) will hate the idea.”

“Well, it goes against policy.”

“<insert a book title here> says this is not the right way to be successful.”

Crap like that. These are the great ideas that are gonna die as you move down the “consensus” side of the bell curve.

To be clear. These are pragmatic self inflicted wounds in 2 ways:

      • They are useful ideas, just useless within the systems/process/culture that exists
      • If you try and implement, these are like the wounds that never heal and often get infected

That’s why a good pragmatic generalist will set this type of ideas aside.


And then, sadly, many great ideas get killed off because of consensus. Now that the collaborators are moving down the bell curve this is when creativity typically gets crushed. If you don’t have that generalist (or a way to capture those great ideas), the group starts heading into Consensus Land (sometimes called the Bermuda Triangle of Ideas).


Consensus means “gray.” Or maybe I could just say that, during consensus, great ideas just keep getting filed down to a nub of an idea. Unless you have a truly unique leadership group (that have a meaningful system for agreeing to ‘wild & crazy’ ideas) as soon as the group gets involved you evolve/devolve to the middle.

It is easy to get to that place. Less objections and less obstacles to “getting it done.” Sounds good, but ‘getting it done’ more often than not is sacrificing some really good things to get it done.

This whole consensus thing gets even worse when it gets driven down into the middle management level.

So, let’s play this out.

Senior leaders in their infinite wisdom want to empower the “little people” (ok … the people less senior) so they put a group of them together and say “bring me ideas your group supports.”

Uh oh. The group.


The group who all want to be promoted.

The group who doesn’t want to look stupid.

The group which may be made up of people with different bosses who have different agendas.

The group that wants to look fiscally responsible.

The group is now in trouble <in other words, the Ideas are now in trouble>.

The group will not select a bright color. Gray, baby, gray. Or something very very neutral that blends into the background of anyone who may have to approve it. No sharp edges anyone can get stabbed with and something nice and soft and fluffy so everyone likes it.

Collaboration, well done, does have value. Often significant value. It takes ideas and enhances (tactically, strategically, functionally and pragmatically) to a point where survival of the idea is greater than its likelihood of death. In other words. Collaboration enhances implementation, not creation, of ideas.

So, go ahead and collaborate to your heart’s content. You will be creative. Just avoid the last “C” (consensus). And maybe you will end up with the innovation your company needs.

All of which leads me to:


Great companies need at least one unreasonable person.


Which leads me to say that companies are strewn with reasonable people.

This is important when you start talking about collaboration and, inevitably, consensus.


“We are a country of centrists.”

The West Wing


In general, large organizations are groups of centrists. Why? Companies are strewn with people whose main criterion is “making sense”. They bludgeon you with the reasonable “why does it make sense?” club every chance they get. They are the sensible people that keep companies from fiscal irresponsibility and, in general, keep the company out of the ditch. To them everything has to have a reason. It has to all make sense.

Working with the smartest of these people (and please don’t believe that because they are exceedingly reasonable they are not often brilliant business people) means you are constantly running an escalating gauntlet of objections when you suggest a seemingly unreasonable (or non-sensible) idea.


“I’ve learned any fool can write a bad ad, but it takes a real genius to keep his hands off a good one.”

Leo Burnett


Each sensible objection begets another sensible objection. And it gets tiring (as well as the odds are in their favor they will ultimately get to the objection where you are forced to respond “because it feels like the right thing to do” … which is … uhm … the kiss of death to the idea). By the way, reasonable people get you coming and going. They will over-reasonabilize (I made up that word) the idea itself and then bring down the reasonable hammer onto the execution and nail it down one nail at a time.

Let’s be clear. If you always did what the reasonable people want you to do, you will maintain your speed (sometimes you may go a little faster and sometimes a little slower) and you will drive right down the middle of the racetrack.


You will never hit a wall or run off the track. But at some point, someone will pass you (don’t worry … some of those guys have no clue what they are doing and will crash).

By the way, feel free and take some solace in the fact the crashers are probably a team strewn with unreasonable people who drive their reasonable few crazy. But. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that, unfortunately, some of those guys who pass you really do have their act together and most likely some unreasonable person figured out a way of getting people to endorse the ‘unlikely’ and while you keep waiting for them to crash, they simply keep going faster than you and, before you know it, they are so far ahead you cannot even see them.

To summarize. I believe in my heart of hearts the greatest ideas arise from individuals. And it takes a unique “individual” who is willing to share this idea and truly accept the grinding, helpful idea conflict and execution collaboration, it takes to take a diamond in the rough to the Hope diamond. I also think it takes some unique individuals who love the true art of diamond grinding (they have to be a little selfless). If you can get the collaborators collaborating and not trying to come up with a consensus idea, you have a fighting chance of getting “the diamond.” But, in general, collaboration and consensus kill the best ideas.

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Written by Bruce